One breezy June day last year, I made it to the sweeping blue-greens of Khonoma—India’s first ‘green village’. Tucked into the serene bubble of the hills of Nagaland, the village is surrounded by well-conserved rain forests. After settling into my home stay, I sat near the window, adjusting to the vast expanse of forest shrouded by a blanket of cloud. The faint babble of a just-out-of-sight stream kept me company, only occasionally interrupted by crickets. Nearby lay terraced paddy fields, sprawling on the slopes, the dessert to my visual feast. But Khonoma is not just another pretty destination. Home to the warriors of community conservation, this special land is inhabited by the Angami tribe of Nagaland, a portal to their rich, time-tested culture.
Back in the ’90s, Khonoma’s stunning natural vistas and forests were a hotbed for rampant deforestation and hunting. Unchecked extraction of forest resources and hunting for food and livelihood had endangered its once-robust ecosystem. It was extensive foraging, hunting, and timber logging that pushed Khonoma onto the precipice of severe natural resource depletion. In 1993, the killing of 300 Blyth’s tragopan—a vulnerable species of pheasants—took place in name of a hunting competition. The loss was an eye-opener and a wake-up call for the entire community. This brewing determination to salvage forests and natural resources through community conservation led to the inception of Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS) in 1998.
I had read a few stories here and there about Khonoma but watching the flourishing forest and hills around me dwarfed all those anecdotes. The village is beyond idle natural splendour, its true grit lies in the strength of the community and its constant effort to protect the environment.
For nearly a decade, Tsilie Sakhrie, one of the pioneers of KNCTS, launched a relentless storm of awareness campaigns. His efforts paid off, uniting the people of Khonoma under a common cause. By 1998, there was a total ban on logging timber and hunting. “Without conservation, all species will go extinct and deforestation will deprive us of clean air. This is the thought that motivated me to educate the villagers and create a community for sustainable practices,” Sakhrie told me on my maiden visit to his turf, months before his unfortunate passing this year.
My visit, thus, was full of learning. When you spend some time in Khonoma, the active effort that goes into the cause on an individual level becomes apparent. Make no mistake, community conservation is a Herculean task. Convincing people whose second nature is hunting, or negotiating with tribesmen used to eking out their livelihoods from forest resources, was always going to be an uphill battle. The KNCTS-led society, however, rose to the challenge. With the ban on hunting and cutting trees, people were encouraged to take up stone masonry, basket weaving, carpentry, and farming as alternative livelihoods. A certain section of people, expert hunters who lacked other skills, were even provided with cows for milking. Today, after decades of reorientation, Khonoma boasts hundreds of expert craftsman and skilled masons.
As Khonoma bandaged its bruises, its fading population of native birds and animals too, returned. After I met with Sakhrie, I walked down the stone laid stairs with my friend and guide Mhasi into the cobbled village streets He filled me in about the fantastic work of Khonoma Youth Organization. Turns out that with the ageing population of the village elders having fought their share of the green battle, the youth have now taken up the baton. This is a community that penalises anyone found hunting, felling timber, or cutting trees with a heavy fee and warning, something that the youth organisation is responsible for. These young boys spend their adolescence in Morung, a community learning centre and dormitory for boys, dabbling in craftsmanship, agriculture, and social responsibilities in order to become an active member of the conservation community.
I visited Khonoma in the paddy sowing season. Lucky me, its terraced paddy fields were alive with the near-neon glow of fresh saplings! Villagers could be seen tending to their crops and vegetables, working away in the very fields where my host family invited me for a green lunch.
Lunch in the lush backdrop saw a lady dash past me with a bamboo basket balanced on her back and strapped to the forehead, all crammed with freshly harvested carrots. Another man carried past a basket full of potatoes, and lustrous leafy greens. I was told that Khonoma’s bounty is seldom sparse, because shifting cultivation is the primary form of cultivation for vegetables here. The farms are interspersed with alder trees to continue natural fertilization of the land from falling leaves, once harvest is over.
Speaking of bounty, beautiful flowers adorn the porches of Khonoma’s homes at most times of the year. As I admired a tub of brilliant morning glory, Mhasi informed me that schools in Khonoma organise flower potting and decoration competitions, “to prepare kids as the future of the conservation community”. I learnt that he village shops too, use paper bags and newspaper, to wrap things, as single-use plastic is banned—predictably so. The village also has a solid waste management facility to ensure proper disposal or incineration of the waste. It all tied into each other, Khonoma’s distinct ways of preserving what is at the heart of their living—a respectful relationship between man and nature.
Looking back on my time in the sleepy village, I realise I was fortunate to witness its spectacular soul and spirit. For me, Khonoma’s is a story of how small initiatives can also bring about giant changes.
Upasana Kakati is an ex-lecturer turned freelance content writer who enjoys documenting stories from the road. Passionate about traveling to remote places, she shares her journey on Instagram at @unconventionalandvivid.