Protect the Punshilok Forest on a hill in Imphal
- Moirangthem Loiya Ngamba started cultivating plants on the Maru Langol hill range in Imphal about 20 years ago, turning a once dry 300-acre hill into forest.
- Each year, to prevent forest fires, Loiya and other volunteers create a line of fire around the forest by breaching the plantation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of the forest. ‘a forest fire.
- Northeast India has rich biodiversity, but the State of the Forest of India 2019 report showed that the region has experienced a total decrease of approximately 765 km² of forest cover, with Manipur experiencing the highest loss of 499 km² of forest cover.
In early 2002, Moirangthem Loiya Ngamba from the Meitei community in Manipur, started cultivating plants on the Maru Langol hill range nestled in the northern part of the Imphal valley. Now, almost 20 years later, the 47-year-old has helped transform the once dry 300-acre hill into a forest.
While Loiya says he has been “adventurous” most of his life, he didn’t think growing a forest would be one of his missions.
North East India is endowed with rich forest resources and is among the 17 biodiversity hotspots in the world. But the State of India’s Forest Report 2019 presented a grim picture for northeast India as the region saw a total decrease of around 765 km2 in forest cover. According to the report, Manipur suffered the greatest loss of 499 km2 of forest cover.
When Loiya was young, he often visited the verdant peak of Koubru in the Senapati district of Manipur. Until today, the Meitei people of Manipur consider Mount Koubru to be one of the holiest mountains in the state. “We used to hike there. We climbed and walked under the huge trees. These moments were magical for me, ”he says. When he returned home after graduating in philosophy from Madras Christian College (MCC) in Chennai in 2000, he returned to the mountain range where he hiked when he was young. The tall trees and the vast green cover had shrunk considerably. “I was shocked,” he says.
He then embarked on the ambition of finding land where he could plant trees. While he was keen to plant in the Koubru Range, he said, it would have been difficult due to the distance from where he could camp. So he started looking for nearby hills. His search led him to the barren Maru Langol range of hills. He started living on top of the hill in a small hut that he built himself and lived there for the next six years observing and studying his surroundings.
The land where Loiya started planting falls under the state forest reserve region. Any settlement is considered illegal encroachment by the government but according to Loiya, because he was interested in creating a green cover in the area, forestry officials did not consider it an illegal act. Loiya named the forest Punshilok, which means “a source of life” in the Meitei language.
Ruella Rahman Khound, a freelance filmmaker from Assam, who directed a short film on Loiya earlier this year, told Mongabay-India that while her work is “very local”, its significance could be much greater. “People are taking notice of what he has done, some are also volunteering to work with him, and that’s how the impact will grow. “
“At the end of the day,” she says, “he’s a simple man,” who will continue to do his job whether “someone is watching him or not”. One of the main takeaways for Khound from the history of Loiya is self-assessment. “You see a man who spent 19-20 years regrowing a forest – when you see that level of commitment, you realize it’s something that can’t be achieved in the short term, he’s there for it. long term, ”Khound adds.
Two of the biggest success stories of forest regrowth in India are those of Loiya and Jadav Payeng of Majuli in Assam, popularly known as The Forest Man of India. “The fact that the two emerged from northeast India is remarkable to me,” says Rajkamal Goswami, conservation scientist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE). “The northeast of India is considered wild, but these kinds of efforts or narratives show that the region is not entirely lush, green and isolated, but that there are issues leading to the deforestation, ”Goswami explains. He also believes it will inspire and motivate others to undertake similar efforts and protect the existing forests around them.
Creation of a line of fire to prevent forest fires
When Loiya cultivated the forest, he said, he didn’t have to water the plants because he planted just before the monsoons and the rainwater naturally took care of the environment. This pattern has been followed by him consistently, with the exception of some plants that require watering when planted in the off season.
Forest fires, often caused by someone’s negligence, are common and it doesn’t take long for them to spread. In order to prevent forest fires, Loiya and volunteers from the Wildlife and Habitat Protection Society (WAHPS), an organization he founded with a few friends, establish a line of fire around the forest each November. A fire line is a space in a plantation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a forest fire. “It takes more than a month to make our forest line. We all live together during the month of November. This line of fire is proving effective in fighting forest fires, ”says Loiya, who now lives about 15 minutes from Punshilok, in Phayeng village.
The forest today has many varieties of plants, including 30 different species of bamboo, twenty species of orchids. There are many trees like fig tree, jackfruit, tamarind, mango, mulberry, oak, magnolia, neem, gulmohar etc. It is the project of a lifetime and will have to be continued over the generations, ”says Loiya.
The forest has also been home to barking deer, crab-eating mongooses, different types of rescued snakes, a variety of cicadas and spiders. There are birds like the bulbul, the blue magpie, kites and owls. “It is also convenient for migrating birds to arrive at Punshilok because it is watched 24 hours a day and no one can hunt or kill them. There are a lot of birds that come from the eastern Himalayan region during the winter like the souimangas for example, ”adds Loiya.
Initially, people thought Loiya was there to capture land. “I’ve heard rumors like that, but no one has ever told me directly because my work hasn’t had any negative impact. People mostly liked what I’m trying to do, ”he says.
Environmental education, says Loiya, cannot be limited to textbooks. Children must be taken to the forests, they must go camping and enjoy the wild nature, breathe fresh air and discover the purity of the place. “Once they start to feel it, only then can they protect it.”
Conservation is the key
There were few local organizations that knew about Loiya’s work and some newspapers published small articles about her. Then, under the Films Division of India banner, documentary filmmaker Farha Khatun made a film called The Jungle Man… Loiya in 2018.
In 2019, the Balipara Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with local communities at the intersection of nature and economy, awarded Loiya the Nature Conservation Award. “He worked on a small piece of land that he manages intensively. He takes care of the forest so that there is no destruction. “Even when people come in, he makes sure they take care of the area,” says Joanna Dawson, who works as an anthropological viewer for the Balipara Foundation, adding that Loiya focuses on natural regeneration. “He basically planted from scratch, so that’s what people would call forest restoration in the classic sense.”
Loiya has not yet received large funding, but many people associated with WAPHS and a few others have helped him financially. The main funder is his own brother who owns a pharmacy in Imphal. “My mother also gave me a few hundred when I lived on top of the hill for those six years,” he says. He also views his wife and two children as his greatest support system.
Loiya laments that the earth is dying, that the population is constantly increasing, and that it exceeds the capacity of the earth to support more life forms. “It doesn’t make sense to tackle something with limited resources. Conservation is the key, otherwise we have no future. To survive, we must nourish and protect the environment: our mountains, our trees, our oceans and our rivers.
Banner image: Moirangthem Loiya has been conserving, planting and protecting Punshilok Forest on the Maru Langol Hill Range in Imphal since 2002. Photo courtesy of Moirangthem Loiya.