Amid the prevailing tension caused by the recent unprecedented ethnic violence in India's Northeast state Manipur that left over 60 people dead and hundreds others injured, Phayeng forest located in Imphal West district was set ablaze by unknown miscreants on Thursday (May 11).
As the news of the forest fire spread, villagers of Phayeng rushed to the site and in no time stopped the raging wildfire from spreading further into the forest that has been protected and preserved by the villagers for several years.
According to the villagers, the fire was started from the western side of Phayeng hill range. It may be mentioned that Songyang Kuki village and Chiru village are located on the western and north-western side of the Phayeng hill range.
When Imphal Free Press visited the incident site, Phayeng village member Lukhonjao Angom, who is a social worker, told this reporter that on several occasions, forest areas of the Phayeng hill range had been set ablaze reportedly by unknown individuals or groups.
"Two days ago, wildfire occurred on the northern side of Phayeng forest in which several ancient trees were burnt down," he said.
Angom pointed out that the fire on Thursday (May 11) started from the Western side of the Phayeng hill range. The fire was brought under control due to the speaady actions taken by the villagers of Phayeng.
The villagers spotted smoke rising from the forest around 3 pm of Thursday and immediately rushed to the scene to stop the fire from spreading further, he added.
Throwing light on the prompt response of the villagers in dousing the massive forest fire, Angom said that preserving and protecting the Phayeng forest had been a traditional practice of the villagers since time immemorial.
Community participation has been the key to the green conservation efforts in Phayeng village of the Chakpa community. Forest conservation in Phayeng is also mainly linked to the belief of the villagers that the forest is a sacred grove, he said.
"The villagers consider the forest their soul. As such, all families are involved in forest rejuvenation activities and they will make efforts to protect it at all costs," he added.
Angom further explained that "the villagers consider it a bad omen if wildfire occurs in the forest areas. Such incident of forest fire is believed to bring turmoil and devastation to Phayeng village, Hence, the villagers guard and preserve their forest with all their might."
It may also be mentioned that Phayeng has a forest protection committee called umang kanba. It was an age-old tradition of the village to investigate the cause of the wildfire in the forest and dispense punishments if any individual was found to be involved in the destruction of the forest.
Angom further expressed suspicion that the fire on Thursday might have been started by unknown miscreants or groups.
While he urged the people not to cause harm to the forest in any manner, he also appealed to the authorities concerned to give proper security to Phayeng village and its forests.
It may be mentioned that in 2016, Phayeng became India’s first Model Carbon Positive Eco-Village under the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change. The village has been resurrected from a dry and denuded village of the 1960s by ways of conserving and protecting the surrounding forest.
The carbon-positive tag is given to a village “if it sequesters more carbon than it emits, slowing the accumulation of greenhouse gases and mitigating the effects of climate change”.
As a part of the carbon-positive village project, the government planned to set up an indigenous knowledge centre in the village. It also planned to facilitate afforestation in the catchment area of river Maklang that flows along the village.
The government also planned creation of water bodies, introduction of climate change-resilient varieties of crops, installing solar lights, an eco-resort, and replacing firewood in kitchen with cooking stoves by all in the village.
However, in an interaction with the Imphal Free Press earlier this January, villagers of Phayeng expressed distress and concern over the increasing deforestation taking place in the border areas, and had sought the government's intervention to save the forest.