Saumyadeep Datta is organizing indigenous youth groups to conduct conflict resolution and environmental preservation in the strife-torn northeastern region of India. They are establishing "people's sanctuaries" across the seven states in the Northeast and training ethnic groups to conserve their common forest heritage.
The New Idea
Saumyadeep Datta, a lifelong birder, has seen up close how environmental degradation increases economic stress in forest communities and drains positive youth energy into terrorist movements. Based in Assam, he is mobilizing and training a youth environmental movement of over 3,000 volunteers to return the rain forests to their indigenous people, and initiate conflict resolution, crime prevention, and peace initiatives among them. Saumyadeep's approach, for the first time in the country, has turned around competing government, extremist, and indigenous claims over protected wildlife areas in the favor of the latter. Most importantly, it has organized rural youth leaders – most vulnerable to extremist pulls – to turn around unprotected green belts into "people's sanctuaries."
Saumyadeep's creative interplay of environmental and economic strategies have brought youth from tribes in conflict – Boda, Rambha, etc. – into a taut network. By demonstrating that the youth of antagonistic tribes share a common green heritage, it has shown them positive lifestyle options in eco-activism. Thus, as new youth leadership emerges around forest belts of Assam, wildlife protection is fortified and the economies of local communities are uplifted. Saumyadeep aims to replicate the model across the seven strife-torn states in the country's Northeast and is establishing linkages with citizen organizations and bureaucrats in the region.
Forests and wildlife tracts have historically been much contested resource belts in all seven states of the Northeast. They have been depleted for their commercial worth by government, criminals, and militants alike. The Wildlife Protection Acts of India stipulate complete eviction (and, therefore disenfranchisement) of indigenous communities within a five-kilometer radius of wildlife-protected areas. It makes no allowance for local management of the forests by villagers who have traditionally lived in and around protected areas. Similarly, the Forest Conservation Acts of 1980 make tribal rights to hunting in forests illegal and legitimize the exclusion of local communities from any method of forest use. The rural poor, therefore, gain little by protecting tree cover. Often they fell trees, clear patches of land, and put them to plow, thereby branding their ownership over it.
Commercial pressures, coupled with the Wildlife Protection Acts of India have, thus, divorced traditional forest communities from their natural economic bases of sustenance. Additionally, all the wildlife reserves and forests of the state have been heavily encroached upon by illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This has not only put pressure on forest resources and land but has divided the local population along communal lines (Bangladeshi migrants are Muslims), and has caused increasing tension between "outsiders" and the locals.
The largest numbers of forest reserve parks and wildlife sanctuaries are concentrated in the Northeast. Casual forest employees who fall in the bottom rungs of the Forest Department often work in close comradeship with militants and smugglers; and timber smuggling, poaching, and extremist activities continue unabated. Voluntary environmental and peace efforts in the region have relied on charity programs.
Saumyadeep defines a "people's sanctuary" as one created through grassroots pressure on the government to provide high conservation status and stringent legal protection for bio-diverse hot-spots around which communities live. In return, communities provide the management and vigilance systems for the sanctuary. The rationale: villagers have sophisticated traditional training in wildlife and flora protection. Their policing systems are organized and independent of expensive infrastructure. A people's sanctuary also houses a conflict resolution center where ethnic groups, government officials, and even extremists sort out differences and plan together.
His model stems from his establishment of, perhaps, the first "people's sanctuary" in the history of modern India. In the late 1980s, Saumyadeep and his friends discovered the Golden Langur and four other endangered primates in Chakrashila, his home-district. "We felt that the wildlife peg would be a non-threatening base to launch our demand for greater conservation status for Chakrashila," he says. Gathering his base of youth volunteers, Nature's Beckon, which he had organized earlier, Saumyadeep launched a grassroots environmental movement that succeeded in getting the state to declare Chakrashila a wildlife sanctuary. Today, it is managed completely by the villagers. As a result, since 1994, no forest ranger or beat officer has been deputed by the government to Chakrashila – another first in the history of forest management in India.
Saumyadeep's intervention began when the law evicted villagers from a protected green belt in Chakrashila. In response, Nature's Beckon facilitated the forest communities' resettlement in the fringe areas, and trained sixteen villages around the sanctuary to regenerate their own forests around Chakrashila and establish sustainable food security and income-generation. A combination of ingenious irrigation methods and traditional forest-based food and cash-crop cultivation has led to substantial improvement in the quality of their lives. Annual income has gone up by Rs. 10,000 (US $232). The model conflict resolution center within Chakrashila is called Tapovan, which has broken the antagonism between villagers and bureaucrats, achieved state respect for Nature's Beckon's efforts, and spurred successful grassroots campaigns for governmental accountability on social-sector spending. Health and education programs are offered to children of differing ethnic groups in Tapovan.
The Chakrashila experience has fueled Saumyadeep's efforts to spread the green movement to other parts of the region, beginning with the state of Assam. Of the existing 328 reserve forests of Assam, his team has prioritized twelve on the basis of their fragile eco-systems and endangered wildlife wealth, and by the severity of encroachment. He is training local communities around the five kilometer radius of potential sanctuaries to organize, collect data, lobby for sanctuary status for their wildlife domains, and reenact the Tapovan experience.
Sanctuary status often produces youth who are disenfranchised and divorced from their traditional settlements. Saumyadeep recruits these youth as volunteers, and their exhaustive and continuous training is at the heart of the Nature's Beckon vision. Training takes place in villages, on invitation. Saumyadeep and his team start by disseminating information on wildlife conservation. Next they walk the villagers through discussions on the tenuous links between environment, economy, and militancy, and encourage debates. They identify potential youth leaders and involve them in exhaustive nature camps, educational trails, constructive peer interaction, etc. The aim is to help them look anew at forests, which they have for so long viewed with apathy. Interactive games like "feel a tree" and family motivation programs work especially well with families of poachers and timber smugglers. Through low-cost training aids, journals, and workshops, Nature's Beckon trains these eco-emissaries in fifteen steps of biodiversity management and protection.
Of the 500 villages that surround existing wildlife sanctuaries of Assam, Saumyadeep and his team of eco-volunteers have touched 140,000 people. They have created updated, bio-diversity maps of villages around the five kilometer outer radius of the wildlife sanctuaries of Assam. Nature's Beckon is using this data to train and create self-contained local information systems for communities. As the number of training programs in villages increase, so do the numbers of youth volunteers, who provide a new, young, alternative leadership to villages. Populations that were once hired by extremists, timber smugglers, poachers, etc., for nominal wages to plunder green belts, are now reducing human demand on central forest systems, relocating their economic bases away from endangered wildlife and plant species, and designing new forest-based development programs along the fringes of the forests. Saumyadeep interacts with them at regular intervals for fresh insights and to share experiences.
Nature's Beckon is also providing training to citizen organizations in Assam and other parts of the Northeast to provide support structures to youth volunteers as the movement for the protection of wildlife grows. Training has been conducted with over 60 organisations over a spectrum of issues: conflict resolution skills for working with communities in hostile areas, bird-watching, bio-diversity management, documentation, lobbying, advocacy and campaigning skills, resourcing through creative ways, etc.
Though Nature's Beckon received a small grant from the National Foundation of India, an Indian donor agency, all its activities are forest-based and need no resources from outside. The organization earns Rs. 90,000 (US $2093) every year through memberships and encourages the sale of its publications during training activities.
Saumyadeep Datta was born in 1967 to the Roopshi Zamindari family of Assam, among its most influential estate holders. His grandfather, the family patriarch, was a distinguished environmentalist. He introduced Saumyadeep to bird-watching to quell the mischievous seven-year-old's nervous energy. "I loved the birds and the green calmed me," Saumyadeep remembers.
He felt frustrated in closed classrooms and could not relate to blackboard teaching. Much of his childhood was spent with two "septuagenarian grandfathers" who introduced him to the world of environmental studies. Saumyadeep devoured books, news clippings, and journals on environmental issues and created his own library of ecological studies. At the age of thirteen, he established Nature's Beckon with his mother, sisters, and grandfathers enrolled as the first members.
The family's obsession with large, organized shikar (hunting expeditions) took Saumyadeep to Chakrashila for the first time. He loved the forest and hated the plunder. "After the abolition of the privy purse (an allowance that the government of India paid to small, erstwhile rulers), the resources waned, as did the interest of my family in returning to the forests. But I kept going back," Saumyadeep says. The worsening conditions of the forest urged him to launch a youth environmental education program in affiliation with the WWF and create more bird-watching clubs in the Dhubri district of Assam. In 1988, he gathered a team of friends and organized the All Assam Environment Awareness Campaign that stretched across Assam, from the Brahmaputra to the Barak valley, in collaboration with the government of Assam. Saumyadeep and his team traveled across the state, met youth groups, and urged them to set up nature clubs in their towns and cities. This was the first initiative of its kind in the state. After its completion, over 100 nature clubs sprung up across Assam.
Saumyadeep's experience in the Chakrashila Wildlife Preserve (upgraded later in 1994 to a Wildlife Sanctuary) spawned many years of practical learning. As a rebellious fourteen-year-old, he mobilized rural youth networks across Assam, gathered them into fun eco-watch clubs, and generated awareness about the depleting source of fun: the forests. As he trained them exhaustively in eco-management and conflict-prevention strategies, he was intuitively defining strategies that would later firm his model. Saumyadeep, a self-trained environmentalist, has attended and conducted several courses on environmental protection and conservation. He was invited by the Smithsonian Institute to attend a comprehensive course on professional environmental management. He has worked extensively with government institutions on conservation and related themes.