Dilemmas of wildlife research in Arunachal
‘What is the benefit of this wildlife research to our community? If you cannot give us benefits, at least do not prevent us from the economic benefits that dams bring’. This question was posed by a resident of Anini town in Dibang Valley to a group of wildlife researchers. It was met by a long, deep silence. No one uttered a word. Many questions were left unanswered during a two-day Dibang Research Seminar: Initiating a dialogue between the Idu Mishmi and research scholars organized in 2019.1
The seminar’s objective was to create a platform for researchers (wildlife biologists, anthropologists and other social scientists) working in the Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh to share their research with the residents of the district, the Idu Mishmi. Twelve researchers from six national institutes/organizations and NGOs, including two Idu Mishmi researchers, presented their work. Idu Mishmi shamans provided a cosmological view of human-environment relations and shared their traditional belief systems on wildlife conservation. Presentations ranged from tiger ecology, frog diversity, the discovery of new butterflies, ecotourism and knowledge systems of Idu Mishmi.
The general public from the district participated in the seminar with enthusiasm. They know how ecologically diverse and biologically rich their district is; they fear that wildlife research, especially on tigers, may hamper their chance of seeing ‘development’ and ‘progress’. One of the Idu Mishmi speakers asserted that though the Dibang Valley had become a hub for researchers, they received no apparent benefits, a common concern shared by residents. Local communities have become more aware about researchers: about what they are doing, what they are writing about, and also why they are interested in these remote forests of Arunachal Pradesh?
Local communities are not happy being treated as mere ‘objects’ of scientific studies, writes Nitin Sethi2 in the context of the Apatani community in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal, and how wildlife researchers portray them. According to Sethi, such responses and rebuttals in the ‘language of rational science and statistics’ was a rare phenomenon. The community strongly reacted to a research paper by Selvan et al.,3 that showed the indigenous people predominantly engaged in subsistence hunting of rare and threatened animals, building pressure on the region’s mammals.
The Apatani challenged the researchers not only on their findings but also their methodology! Sethi writes: ‘[A]ssertive communities are now able to engage with the language of the academia; careful about how they are portrayed, they have begun to question not only the methods, the findings but also the stereotypical prescriptions often dished out too often.’ Such responses from the communities in the state have, resulted in increasing conflicts between local communities and the research community, which I argue will predominantly feature in the discourses on environmental protection and environmental futures of Arunachal Pradesh.
Arunachal Pradesh’s frontier zones are recognized for their geopolitical significance, richness of transboundary biodiversity, and cultural complexities. The importance of the area has increased with visits by powerful actors such as the military, corporations, conservation NGOs, and members of the tourism sector. The dominant narrative has long been that the indigenous marginal communities living along the frontiers are excluded from the decision-making processes of development and conservation. That said, what is increasingly evident is that the local communities are now deciding their environmental futures by challenging the terms that govern ecological resources. I now discuss how the changing relationship between the local communities and visiting wildlife researchers has impacted the future of environmental research in these sensitive resource frontiers in unexpected ways.
When the article on the Apatani was published, I was in Dibang Valley for my PhD fieldwork. I witnessed an incident, somewhat similar but a more complex one. ‘So many researchers come here, and we don’t know what they are doing’, a local resident said. He told me that there had been a group of Japanese researchers there, and he did not know what research they did. Many residents have raised grievances with the influx of researchers, triggered by the tiger cub rescue in the district.4 The role and presence of researchers has been perceived as hampering the ‘development’ of the region. While the driving factors behind natural resource conflicts are complex and often inter-linked with local politics, including national and local demand for economic growth. This occasionally gets messy and contentious, at times making the researcher an unwilling or a reluctant player and, sometimes an infamous partner.
The meeting space between the wildlife researchers and local community produces cross-cultural encounters that could easily lead to confusion, amusement, frustration, and potential conflict.5 Such encounters not only shape relations between individuals, institutions and cultures, but also about our understanding of nature itself.6 These spaces of collaboration often become spaces of contestation because of the profound disconnect between the expectations and goals of each group, which leads to disappointment for both.7
The confusion and frustration between the two parties become evident because of the nature of collaboration and exchanges between them. Interactions between field researchers and native communities unfold in various ways leading to conflicts that could, I argue, hamper the future of environmental research in the region. Due to the unequal and hierarchical relationships that appear to exist in culturally distinct worlds, the encounter between them may not always be smooth.8 Similarly, Baruah highlights how the changing relations to land over time have altered the way the post-colonial resource frontiers are developed and governed in Northeast India.9
Likewise, implementing wildlife conservation projects and engaging with local communities is challenging in Arunachal, occasionally even leading to people threatening the research community and preventing them from doing their work. In another incident, in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, researchers and forest officials were assaulted and even shot at.10 The villagers abused the team (including researchers from a Guwahati-based NGO), challenging the declaration of the tract as a Tiger Reserve.11 While the precise reasons for this are not clear, the research team, their property (camera traps) and office were damaged, leading to the research station’s closure. Incidents like these are often not acknowledged or mentioned in research reports and journal articles.
In parts of Arunachal Pradesh where I have worked, researchers studying forests and wild animals are referred to as ‘wildlifewale’ (wildlife persons). ‘Wildlife’ is a term used for the forest department and the wildlife sanctuary by residents. Often, the term is also used for conservation NGOs and wildlife biologists. The local people see these researchers as an extended arm of the forest department which only complicates matters. Much of the research work is done in collaboration with the forest department; sometimes it is both sponsored and implemented at the department’s request.
In less than a decade, Dibang Valley has witnessed a lot, from being a quiet remote border district to a highly contested site where multiple actors grapple with politics and power to make way for wildlife conservation. Some terms like ‘tigers’, ‘forests’, ‘wildlife’, ‘camera traps’ have become sensitive, even prickly. A mere word can trigger tensions leading to discussions on how and what kind of research is needed in Dibang Valley. Such tensions end up creating ‘mistrust’, ‘non-communication’ and ‘miscommunication’.12 The Idu Mishmi have begun to question every visiting researcher who claims to be studying wildlife, people or even landscapes. For example, an MPhil student from Sikkim University, who arrived in 2017 for a four-month research project, was viewed with suspicion, raising curiosity about whether he planned to use camera traps and who was funding his research.
Many of the Idu Mishmi harbour suspicions about any research using high-tech infrared and intrusive camera trap surveys. There is something about this method that is perceived to be exploitative making people wonder what was being captured by those cameras. This resonated with the events I had witnessed in 2014, which arose due to the mistrust the villagers had towards the forest department, but researchers sometimes become a scapegoat or a bait to negotiate terms with the state. In 2014, a team of wildlife researchers working with camera traps were not permitted by members of the village council and the team had to abandon the survey.
During the 2019 seminar, a senior member of the community asked, ‘What have the villagers got from the research done in Dibang Valley over the years?’ Researchers obtain their degrees and fame from the study, but the communities are largely left out and forgotten. While appreciating researchers for conducting several studies among the Idu Mishmis and requesting them to do more in the days to come, he also asked them to keep the villagers informed about their research and research findings. They are now laying out the terms and conditions for researchers. Here is a summary of the suggestions given by the local people during the seminar:
Researchers must share their work with the local residents; local community to be made knowledge partners; researchers are advised not to share the GPS location of wild animals; apart from ecological based research, researchers should focus on social issues; researchers should approach the local organizations13 before starting their work; researchers to consult the concerned members or organizations for any suggestions; coordination between the researchers and the local communities is very much needed; researchers must motivate the younger generations of the Idu Mishmi to take up research.
Encounters and engagement between researchers and communities occur across difference, hierarchy and at different stakes. These could result in unexpected encounters. The top-down approach is being reversed, and now the gaze is on ‘us’ – field researchers, academics, research and conservation NGOs.
On 23 April 2020, a group of wildlife scientists wrote to the Director-General of Forests, Forest Appraisal Committee (FAC, MOEFCC), raising concerns about the 3097 MW Etalin hydro project in Dibang Valley. Their letter specifically protested the diversion of forest land for the project that the FAC sub-committee report had recommended on the condition that the developer deposits money for wildlife conservation in the area. The project would involve the diversion of approximately 1150 ha of forest land and felling of 2.7 lakh trees. Following the letter, there were other online petitions, but few articulated the concerns of the people of Dibang Valley. These debates provide some insights into the antagonisms between conservation ideologues, developers, NGOs and research communities, more importantly, straining the relations between researchers and local residents.
In another incident, a letter written by one of the researchers in 2017 to the Environment Appraisal Committee regarding a hydroelectric project, mentioned that the submergence areas of the project may have tigers. This made the situation worse. Idu Mishmi felt that his letter and stand privileged the cause of tiger conservation over the welfare of the Idus. To see the name of this researcher as a signatory of the letter whom the Idu Mishmi had helped, provided logistical support, offered hospitality, and gave interviews to during his fieldwork came as a shock to them. One of the local residents said, ‘Haamare peeth mein khanjar mara hai’ (He has stabbed us in the back).
Results of wildlife research are believed to conflict with developmental agendas14 (construction of Etalin hydroelectric project) or even in the case of conservation of landscape (creating the Dibang Tiger Reserve). In a meeting by an Anini based organization in 2019, it was decided not to allow researchers to enter Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary until the dispute about its boundaries was resolved. Later, a high-level meeting with the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department and NTCA15 agreed to carry out a mapping exercise of the sanctuary border, along with the local community, barring the researchers. Lately, there is an acceptance that the sanctuary will not be reduced, but the boundaries may alter at a few places. In addition, the issue of the multipurpose dam in Etalin has created tensions between some local members and scholars. Visiting researchers have been under scrutiny by residents and feel that ecological studies from the region could delay ‘development’.
The signatories to the letters and the initiators of online petitions were criticized, questioning their credibility. Scientists, researchers and activists are seen as ‘outsiders’ and accused of being unfamiliar with or indifferent to issues facing the Dibang Valley. I forwarded the letter written by wildlife scientists to the FAC, to an influential Idu Mishmi member (with a pro-dam stand) whom I have known for several years. His response was:
‘Their concerns are manufactured by some researchers, and it will give a wrong message. Idu Mishmi will take a tough stand against the proposed tiger reserve if FAC turns down the development of the 3097 MW Etalin hydro project. MOEFCC directed the developer to pay money for the conservation of wildlife. This is an appreciative step. We will stop every conservation and research work in Dibang Valley district in retaliation to this letter to Chairperson FAC, by those who are unfamiliar with the Dibang Valley.’
In the case of biodiversity conservation, field-based knowledge production is a ‘multicultural exercise’.16 Both the parties (researchers and communities) have a unique set of skills, knowledge and have varying expectations from each other. Both have different, sometimes contradictory, commitments and agendas. This can lead to misunderstanding. Language and cultural barriers can add to this, especially on technical aspects related to science. Besides, wildlife researchers do not necessarily have the experience or training in working with people when engaging with them in cross-cultural communication. Many researchers are from urban settings, trained in a specific pedagogical approach, who are strongly connected to wildlife conservation, but are alienated from the social issues.
Discussions on environmental futures will have to consider issues of culture, sensitivity and local politics and bringing them together in the story of wildlife conservation, which may pan out in interesting and surprising ways. Can we see this relationship as a collaborative process instead of a one-way engagement of extraction and exploitation? Is real collaboration or cooperation possible between parties whose goals, needs and expectations do not match? What do communities gain from this relationship?
Research teams seek the help of local communities. Some employment is offered (long-term or short-term), on an ad hoc or seasonal basis to communities, who work as field assistants, porters, cooks, drivers, and translators, and help in setting up camera traps, assist in mammal and bird census, and other forestry related duties. Young men from the study site are the potential targets for this kind of work. However, there are examples of women assistants as well.17 Over time, community members tend to gain a basic level of technical expertise and science-based knowledge, including collecting scientific data using GPS, camera traps, filling up survey forms and pick up English-speaking skills. Some researchers even contribute their time to local schools and colleges, giving lectures to share their work.
What do researchers gain? The local understanding of the landscape, ecology and culture, in addition to the information on species, forest trails, habitats, mountain routes, and campsites. Without the knowledge of the local people, research groups could not successfully carry out their research. Hunters are often sought after to record the presence of animal and birds, and to locate high-altitude lakes. The local hunters and young boys become key informants for researchers who look for potential sites to fix camera traps, identify animal footprints, and seek guidance to hike up mountains.
The role of researchers, conservation NGOs and academia in securing the environmental future, needs to be seriously discussed. People who did not have access to written material earlier are now using the internet. They can now read how their cultures are being written about. They are suggesting how to conduct research and what needs to be studied. Voices from the ‘margins’ will only become louder in the future, questioning researchers’ authority, as seen in the case in Arunachal Pradesh.
The challenge of incorporating the views of the local communities for development or conservation is not new for Arunachal Pradesh. Till 1972, the state was administered as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) as a part of Assam, and subsequently as an union territory. The dilemma for administrators was whether to assimilate the people of Arunachal Pradesh with the rest of the country or to keep them isolated for a while to protect their culture, land and resources.18 Elwin had suggested that the views of the people of NEFA should be considered and implemented, and to bring in modern ways of living without destroying local cultures and traditional ways of life.19
It was only after the Sino-India War in 1962 that India began building infrastructure in Arunachal and the region entered a new nationalist discourse aimed at ‘nationalization of the frontiers’.20 Since then, the state has witnessed several developmental projects and changes in the landscape and economy.21 The latest development was the Dhola-Sadiya bridge (also called the Bhupen Hazarika Setu) over Lohit river, claimed to be India’s longest bridge (9.15 km) connecting Assam to Arunachal, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017. There have been concerns that these projects are not inclusive, especially for the local inhabitants who may be left behind as ‘doubly marginalized under the weight of such fast-paced development goals’.22
Other than military and infrastructural development in the region, ideas of development are reflected through the creation of national parks and biosphere reserves. In the context of biodiversity conservation, similar questions arise. How inclusive are these initiatives and how are the concerns of the local communities made visible and audible in the research projects, environment policy and projects. While the local people welcome development projects, environmental activists, NGOs, and civil groups within and outside Arunachal are concerned about the unplanned development.23
As places such as Dibang Valley and other geopolitically, ecologically, and culturally sensitive regions become central to both development and conservation narratives, contestations between different actors may emerge. As Baruah24 (2020) highlights that the new forms of exploitation, dispossession, subordination that emerged during post-colonial dispensation have received less attention by scholars and policy analysts. Local communities’ stand-off with the environmental researchers and developers in Dibang Valley is just one among the several debates in the state.
The dominant narrative has long been that the communities living along the frontiers are excluded from the decision-making processes of development and conservation. But increasingly and rightly the marginal communities are imposing conditions in deciding the environmental future by challenging the terms of governing the frontier ecological resources, including how their landscapes (both biological and cultural) are surveyed, studied, mapped and published in academic literature and other platforms (online, social media, newspapers).
This article is an attempt to highlight the changing relationship between the local indigenous peoples and the visiting researchers and ‘outside’ authorities, raising questions about who has the right to and how to govern their landscape. This emerges from broader citizen awareness among the residents of the valley. More importantly, they critique the role of researchers and their presence as hampering the ‘development’ of the region. The future of the environment and environmental research is at a greater risk today in more ways than one. Researchers need to engage with the local communities, whose landscape and ecology they aim to study and secure, in new and more meaningful ways.
1. ‘Dibang Research Seminar: Initiating Dialogue between Idu Mishmi and the Research Scholars’, 10-11 December 2019. Seminar report. Dibang Valley district, Anini. Seminar organized by the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, with support from Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and Andrew Mellon Foundation, USA, 2020.
2. N. Sethi, ‘Hunting on Hackneyed Ideas’, The Hindu, 20 August 2013. Available https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/hunting-on-hackneyed-ideas/article5072086.eceat (accessed on 25 February 2021).
3. K.M. Selvan, G.G. Veeraswami, B. Habib, and S. Lyngdoh, ‘Losing Threatened and Rare Wildlife to Hunting in Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India’, Current Science 104(11), 2013, pp. 1492-5.
4. P. Dutta, ‘Two Cubs Rescued in Arunachal’, The Telegraph, 16 December 2012.
5. A. Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2005.
6. J.P. Brosius, ‘Analyses and Interventions: Anthropological Engagements with Environmentalism’, Current Anthropology 40(3), 1999, pp. 277-309.
7. P. West, Conservation Is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Duke University Press, Durham, 2006.
8. L. Faier and L. Rofel, ‘Ethnographies of Encounter’, Annual Review of Anthropology 43, 2014, p. 363 (363-77).
9. S. Baruah, In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford University Press, California, 2020.
10. T. Rina, ‘Namdapha Tiger Reserve Under Threat: PCCF Bears the Brunt of Poacher’s Ire’, Arunachal Times, March 2012, p. 1.
12. S. Gearhead and J. Shirley, ‘Challenges in Community-Research Relationships: Learning from Natural Science in Nunavut’, Arctic 60(1), 2007, pp. 62-74.
13. Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society (IMCLS) and Idu Mishmi Elite Society (IMES).
14. R. Pardikar, ‘Floods, Earthquakes, Landslides: Why Arunachal’s Etalin Hydel Project can be a Worry’, Down To Earth, 04 June 2020.
15. National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is a statutory authority under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change, Government of India. One of the objectives of NTCA is to conduct research and monitoring of tigers, co-predators, and their prey and habitats.
16. A. Tsing, op. cit., p. 155.
17. A. Aiyadurai, ‘A Tribute to Ajeimai Yun’, Current Conservation, 2017. https://www. currentconservation.org/a-tribute-to-ajeimai-yun/ (accessed on 25 February 2021; A. Mihu, ‘Notes from a Field Assistant’, Sanctuary Nature Foundation, 2020. https://sanctuary naturefoundation.org/article/voices-from-dibang (accessed on 25 February 2021).
18. B. Guyot-Rechard, Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas 1910-1962. Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2017.
19. V. Elwin, A Philosophy for NEFA, North-East Frontier Agency. Shillong, 1957 (1st edition).
20. S. Baruah, ‘Nationalizing Space: Cosmetic Federalism and the Politics of Development in Northeast India’, Development and Change 34(5), 2003, pp. 915-939.
21. ‘Arunachal Human Development Report’. Department of Planning, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar, 2005.
22. M.Z. Rahman, ‘Territory, Tribes, Turbines: Local Community Perceptions and Responses to Infrastructure Development Along the Sino-Indian Border in Arunachal Pradesh’. Institute of Chinese Studies, Occasional Paper, no. 7, New Delhi, 2014.
24. S. Baruah 2020, op. cit., fn. 9.