Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 20 April 2023

Indigenous Idu Mishmis are protesting

Source: By Tora Agarwala: The Indian Express

On 24 March 2023, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) chief SP Yadav said that the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh would soon be notified as a tiger reserve. The announcement has caused disquiet among the area’s Idu Mishmi people, who feel that a tiger reserve would “hinder their access” to the forest.

Who are the Idu Mishmis, what is their relationship with the forest and why are they resisting the proposed tiger reserve?

The Idu Mishmi, the ‘tiger brothers’

The Idu Mishmi is a sub-tribe of the larger Mishmi group (the other two Mishmi groups are Digaru and Miju) in Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring Tibet. Known for their weaving and craftsmanship skills, the Idu Mishmis primarily live in Mishmi Hills, bordering Tibet. Their ancestral homelands are spread over the districts of Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley as well as parts of Upper Siang and Lohit. The tribe is estimated to comprise around 12,000 people (as per census 2011), and their language (also called Idu Mishmi) is considered endangered by UNESCO.

Traditionally animists, the tribe has strong ties with the region’s rich flora and fauna. Animals such as the hoolock gibbons and tigers have deep cultural relations with the Idu Mishmi. Tigers are especially important to the Idu Mishmis — according to Idu mythology, they were born to the same mother, and thus, tigers are their “elder brothers”.

While hunting has traditionally been a way of life, the Idu Mishmis also follow a strict belief system of myths and taboos — ‘iyu-ena’ — that restrict them from hunting many animals, including a complete prohibition on killing tigers. Anthropologists and other researchers who have studied the area say that this belief system has led to a unique model of wildlife conservation. “Idu beliefs concerning tigers prevent their widespread and immediate retaliatory killing…it is because of these cultural beliefs that tigers thrive in these areas,” wrote Dr Sahil Nijhawan, who did his PhD in the Dibang Valley, in his research on the subject.

The move to propose a tiger reserve

While the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary — a biodiversity hotspot home to rare Mishmi takinmusk deer, goral as well as clouded leopardssnow leopards and tigers — was notified in 1998, plans to declare it as a tiger reserve have been afoot for a while now.

In April 2022, at the 20th NTCA meeting held at the state’s Pakke Tiger Reserve, under the chairmanship of Union Minister for environment Bhupender Yadav, members accorded final approval to declare the wildlife sanctuary as a tiger reserve.

But the push dates further back. In 2012, two tiger cubs were rescued from the Angrim Valley village in Dibang Valley. “Since the rescue, the Dibang Valley district has been witnessing a series of conservation interventions by state and non-state actors,” Dr Ambika Aiyadurai, IIT Gandhinagar scholar, writes in a 2016 paper ‘Tigers are Our Brothers: Understanding Human-Nature Relations in the Mishmi Hills, Northeast India’ published in the Conservation and Society journal. As Dibang Valley became a site by wildlife biologists to map the tiger habitat and count tigers, the recommendations from these visits have led to a proposal suggesting a reconstitution of the existing Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary as the Dibang Tiger Reserve, Dr Aiyadurai, who has done extensive research in the area, adds.

In 2014, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in collaboration with NTCA had carried out a survey to determine the presence of tiger population in the area. Their study — based on photographic evidence via camera trapping — recorded the presence of tigers in the highest reaches of the Mishmi Hills. It is primarily based on these findings that a case is being made to declare the sanctuary as a tiger reserve.

The Idu Mishmi resistance

The tribe has been vociferously opposing any move to convert the wildlife sanctuary into a tiger reserve, fearing that the move will “cut off access to their lands”.

Following media reports on Yadav’s announcement, the tribe’s apex body, the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society (IMCLS), put out a statement saying that while their cultural ethos emphasised on the protection of wildlife, it should not be done at the cost of “lives and livelihoods of local communities”.

In its current form as a wildlife sanctuary, the community’s access to the Dibang forests has not been impacted. But many say a tiger reserve would increasingly restrict access. An upgrade to a tiger reserve would feature stricter security measures like a ‘Special Tiger Protection Force’, which would be guarding the area at all times. This, the community believes, would cut off access to their forest lands.

Our own survival will be endangered… as access to our own lands will be cut off if this is made into a tiger reserve. It will dislodge the local people and hinder their rights to go to the forest,” said IMCLS president Dr Ista Pulu, adding that the community’s cultural taboos already play a unique role in conservation. More recently, the community has declared part of its forest land as a ‘Community Conserved Area’, or a CCA. It is a model governed entirely by local populations, where villagers are demarcate a part of their ancestral land as a “biocultural conserved area”, where they ban hunting, felling trees, and implement other conservation measures

Created without Idu Mishmi ‘consent or knowledge’

Moreover, members of the community claim that Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary was created without people’s consent or knowledge. “It was unilateralarbitrary and illegal. They did not follow the due procedure as mentioned in the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Land Acquisition Act, 1894…many residents whose areas were made part of the sanctuary were not consulted,” said Tilu Linggi, IMCLS member who looks after issues on community rights and protected area.

In 2015, the community had approached the Gauhati High Court seeking legal re-demarcation of the wildlife sanctuary. The ICMLS said that the court had directed the state government to address the issue and come up with a report with the help of a committee, including locals. “The problem of the DWLS is not even sorted out, the government has imposed the idea of a tiger reserve,” said the IMCLS statement.

The community also alleges that the WII study about the presence of tigers in the upper reaches of the Mishmi hills, the findings of which were released in 2018, is “misleading”. Back then, the IMCLS had written to the NTCA saying that the study failed to mention that “photo-captures of tigers at higher altitudes of 3,246 and 3,630 m. occurred outside the sanctuary and in community-owned forests.”

Tigers cannot survive at such high altitudes [as the study claims]… most tigers actually live outside the wildlife sanctuary and in community-owned forest lands,” said Pulu.

The ICMLS has urged the authorities to find a solution that “benefits everyone and respects the rights of the indigenous people”. “Otherwise we will be forced to resort to other democratic means,” it said.