Tradition and Conservation in Northeastern India: An Ethical Analysis

- Abhik Gupta and Kamalesh Guha
Dept. of Ecology, Assam University
Silchar - 788011, India
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 15-18.


An extraordinary development of the central nervous system distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other biological species and has bestowed upon him the ability to grossly alter the structure and function of natural systems to such an extent that the biosphere \ a sphere of all living organisms \ is now virtually transformed into the enoosphereÕ \ a world controlled by the mind of man. Thus, more than the legal or technological tools, it is the human mind that ultimately holds the key to the conservation of the biosphere or its possible destruction. Hence, the ethical positions adopted by man in his dealings with nature are important determinants of the fate of the biosphere, including that of the human species itself. Such ethical positions may be eanthropocentricÕ, where conservation is human-centred and no other component is assigned any intrinsic value, or they may be ebiocentricÕ/ eecocentricÕ to varying degrees, where intrinsic value is recognized in other organisms or in the ecosystems as well. Against the backdrop of these ethical positions, we analyze in this paper the myths and folklores, as well as cultural beliefs, customs and practices of indigenous communities of Northeastern India such as tribals, fisherfolk, hunter-trappers, plantation workers, farmers and so forth, and attempt to trace the ethical basis of various resource utilization and conservation strategies adopted by them. The present-day threats and pressures leading to an erosion of these traditional value-systems are also described and discussed.


At the present level of our knowledge about the cosmos, we know that earth is the only planet that contains life. The myriad forms of life on the earth are organized in the form of the biosphere, a concept put forward by an Austrian geochemist Eduard Suess in 1875, and later propagated and popularized by other ecologists (Vernadsky, 1929; Odum, 1973). Man appeared in the biosphere at a much later date, and his evolution was characterized by a remarkable development of the brain and the central nervous system that sets him apart from all other biological species. Because of the resultant acquisition of tools and technology, man has been able to grossly alter the structure and function of the biosphere. Realizing the role of human species as a mighty geological agent and a selection force, Vernadsky (1944) suggested that the biosphere in the later stage of its evolution has been transformed into a noosphere (Noos \ mind, reason). He further stated that the formation of the noosphere was a natural culmination of the evolution of the biosphere due to the appearance of rational life that led to the restructuring of the form and function of our planet through manÕs creative activity. However, the optimism of Vernadsky about the benign nature of human stewardship in transforming the biosphere into a noosphere where the humans are expected to not only pursue their own short-term goals, but to look after the long-term interests and well being of the biosphere as a whole, seems to be rather misplaced today, as an impending ecological crisis becomes a distinct possibility. Another myth that is fast being shattered is that science and technology, bolstered by stiff legislation, could resolve this crisis. It is now increasingly becoming evident that it is the human mind that holds the key to the survival and flourishing of the biosphere-noosphere or its possible destruction. It is in this context that the ethical positions adopted by the humans with respect to the other members of the biosphere and to the natural systems as a whole, assume great significance. Cairns (1993) notes that the customary scientific approach is unable to check the present rate of habitat destruction, while it may be possible to do so on ethical grounds. Leopold (1990) also suggested that unless our legislations and policies are underlain with a set of ethos or guiding beliefs with regard to biodiversity and the environment as a whole, protection of natural systems or the healing of those which are damaged may remain an unachievable goal. Thus, perhaps the time has come when societal attitude towards environment has to be reexamined, so that human aspirations, economics and politics could be reshaped to check the wanton, unsustainable exploitation of natureÕs resources that are finite (Orr, 1991; Cairns, 1994; Kormondy, 1996).

Environmental vs. societal management

Many economists and environmental managers hold the opinion that appropriate policies for planetary management accompanied by improved flow of information, sophisticated technologies, and a finely-tuned coordination of management programmes could lead to a proper and sustainable utilization of our natural as well as human resources (Repetto, 1986; Clark, 1989). On the contrary, an increasing number of people now suspect that if this was so, we would have been stationed much further along the road to conservation and sustainability than we are at present (Orr, 1995). A more feasible alternative to pursuing the elusive goal of finding an ultimate management for the complex natural systems of our planet will be to reconciling ourselves to curb our demands on the environment and to produce less wastes, especially the non-biodegradable and xenobiotic ones. Thus it is the human behaviour and not the environment that neds tot be managed (Orr, 1991, 1995; Cairns, 1994). If the impact on biodiversity and general integrity of the environment can be expressed as : I = PAT, where I = environmental impact; P = population; A = affluence; and T = technology (Cairns, 1995), then it may be possible to control all the aforesaid variables, viz., population size, level of affluence (that in turn determines the demand on resources as well as the amount of waste generated) and dependence on technology (which is mostly polluting), by modifying societal attitude towards environment.

Ethical dimensions of conservation: anthropocentrism vs. ecocentrism

At this juncture we could, therefore, argue that it is equally if not more important to ask Ō why to conserve ? Ō rather than what or how much to conserve. Conservation may be motivated by anthropocentrism \ where a species or system is conserved to avert the awful consequences of environmental degradation or pollution to the health or well-being of the human species (Martell, 1994). In this case, only human beings are assigned any intrinsic value, i.e., value in itself, while all the other species or systems are given only extrinsic value. The latter have value only because they are of use to the human species. Naess (1973) termed it as Ō shallow ecology Ō. Again, the animal rights activists insist that intrinsic value should also be recognized in sentient creatures (i.e., animals) as they also have the feeling of suffering and well-being \ a view that may be termed as zoocentrism or pathocentrism (Vermeersch, 1994). At the other end of the evalue spectrumÕ are the deep ecologists, who profess recognition of value in all species of organisms and even in the ecosystems which they are part of (Naess, 1973; Martell, 1994; Attfield, 1995). This view is often termed as ecocentrism or cosmocentrism (Vermeersch , 1994). While the extensive debate on the merits of these different ethical positions (Martell, 1994; Attfield, 1995) is beyond the scope of this paper, it may be contended that neither an anthropocentric nor a zoocentric ethics is sufficiently holistic to ensure complete protection and/or sustainable use of biodiversity or ecosystems. In this context, an analysis of the man-nature interactions in many traditional societies in Northeastern India reveals that they have been able to live in harmony with their environment by adopting appropriate ethical positions. Furthermore, while some of these interactions might have begun with a purely anthropocentric view to conserve the resources for sustainable use, they have often transcended over time to become more and more ecocentric and all-embracing.

Ethics of conservation in traditional societies : a Northeast Indian case study

Myths and folklores

The eweltanschauungÕ (world view) of the tribal and other indigenous communities is often reflected in their myths and folklores. Numerous folklores of Northeastern India reveal the deep respect of the indigenous communities for the natural world. For instance, in a Rengma Naga folk tale (Erwin, 1958) we find that at the beginning of time, all living creatures including plants could speak and understand each other. Whenever man wanted to kill an animal or cut down a tree, the latter appealed for mercy, and man did not have the heart to kill them. In order to enable man to obtain his food and other necessities, God robbed all the creatures except man and dog of their power of speech. Now man could hunt freely and their dogs, being able to speak, could tell them exactly where the prey could be found. This resulted in rampant killing, and all the other organisms faced extinction. So, God took away the power of speech from the dogs, and hunting again became more sustainable. In this story we discern an attempt to establish an ethical justification of hunting and cutting down trees for obtaining food and other necessities, but again, unchecked exploitation is not given a divine and therefore, societal sanction. Thus the dog is robbed of his speech to maintain the ebalance of natureÕ. Similarly in an idu Mishmi folk tale (Elwin, 1958), the sparrow enjoys the right to take as much paddy as it wants from the fields, as it is believed that the sparrow taught the the art of cultivation. It seems plausible that as the sparrow often came in large flocks to eat paddy, there was a possibility of people killing sparrows indiscriminately, treating them as pests. This oral tradition, therefore, served to provide some amount of protection to this bird by projecting it as a benefactor of the Idu Mishmis. A similar belief is nurtured by some nomads of Assam, who practice traditional medicine extracted from plants, sell medallions made of various animal parts such as pangolin scales, and trap small birds for consumption. These people never kill the sparrow as it is considered the eking of birdsÕ. However, we do not know if any folklore is associated with this belief.

Compassion for the non-human creatures runs deep in many a folk tale or song. A very popular folk song from Goalpara, Assam, gives a heart-rending recital of a male egret or heron caught in a trap set with small fish to lure the former. Similar songs exist in other areas of the Northeast and perhaps served the purpose of dissuading people from hunting and killing by appealing to their finer senses.

Lifestyles and beliefs

A conservationist philosophy is often the essence of the lifestyle and beliefs of many indigenous Northeast Indian societies. For instance, the Nagas believe that destruction of forests in close proximity of villages will bring a loss of prosperity and disease outbreak (Changkija, 1996). There is also a widespread taboo on hunting during the mating season of animals. Hunters belonging to several communities in Cachar, Assam, do not kill deer during March-May, when pregnant females are present in the herd. Most of these hunters also observe taboo on killing the leader of deer herd or a sounder of wild boar, as it is believed to be bestowed with supernatural powers, and hence killing it is considered a sin. Again, although many people eat herons and egrets, hunting is banned during the nesting season, and their nests which are common sights on the bamboo groves of most villages, are never disturbed. The killing of certain animals is taboo among certain groups. For instance, several ethnic groups in Cachar, Assam, who practice hunting, do not kill the crow, the owl, the vulture, the elephant and certain snakes, while a group of Muslim trappers do not trap or kill the parrot , the owl, the monkey and the jackal. Again, we have not yet been able to find out if any oral tradition or folklore is associated with such beliefs. However, members of the Ramo tribe in Arunachal Pradesh do not eat or kill tigers, because they consider it as their brother, while the Tagins(another tribe in the same state) eat tigers (Dhasmana,1979). A list of such lifestyle-based taboos of various ethnic groups in parts of Northeastern India is provided in Table 1.

Sacred groves and community forest reserves

Community based conservation in Northeastern India is exemplified by the sacred forests or groves based on religious beliefs, and in the form of village forest reserves. The former can be seen in Meghalaya and Manipur while the latter is common in Mizoram (Darlong and Barik, 1998). In Meghalaya, the sacred groves are of three categories, viz., Lao Lyngdoh (forest of the priests), Lao Niam (ritual forests), and Lao kyntang (forests of the clan) (Syngai, 1999). We have also come across a few such small sacred groves in the Cachar district of Assam, maintained by the tea garden communities. The epeersÕ of Barak Valley, Assam, who are sufi saints, also conserve plants in protected groves and fish species in their emokamsÕ (place of worship).

Some of the taboos and beliefs associated with the sacred groves are as follows :

or the removal of dead wood or any other material are strictly prohibited.

In the sacred groves or ethansÕ of Cachar, Assam, footwear is to be removed at the entrance, as in the groves of Tamil Nadu as well (Oliver King et. al., 1997). Similar rules are also observed in the epeer-mokamsÕ. Violation of the taboos in sacred groves are believed to incite the wrath of the presiding deity, and the offender faces the danger of being punished severely. Besides the sacred groves where total protection is enforced, limited extraction of resources is allowed in certain groves, while several tribes and sub-tribes such as Dimasa, Pnar, Hmar, Changsen, Vaiphei, Debbarman, Hrankhawl, Zeme, Mizo and Meiteis in Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur maintain Community Reserve or Supply forests, where extraction on a sustainable basis is allowed with the permission of the headman (chief) and community elders (Guha, 1999).

Extrinsic and intrinsic values in conservation

The ethical positions adopted by the communities while conserving could be found to range from purely anthropocentric to ecocentric or cosmocentric. Thus in the village forest reserves, the motive for conservation is purely anthropocentric, as these are meant to act as a buffer stock during periods of resource crunch. Consequently, only extrinsic values (Martell, 1994) are recognized in non-human organisms and in the system as a whole. A similar philosophy underlies the taboo on killing of deer during mating season, or in the protection extended to birds during the nesting period. The fact that materials can be harvested, albeit on a sustainable scale, from community forests other than sacred groves, or animals hunted during the rest of the year, implies that conservation is mainly aimed at ensuring an unhindered supply of materials for the community in times of need. However, in the other cases, conservation has a much more deep-rooted and holistic ethical basis. For instance, the taboo on killing the leader of a group of deer or wild boar indicates assigning intrinsic value and ascribing some supernatural powers to the animal. Again, the sacred groves were perhaps established from an anthropocentric point of view, but over time, the philosophy of protection ran much deeper to extend intrinsic values to all the organisms and even the non-living entities therein. The community might have realized that total protection could not be achieved without a holistic approach. Our present day experiences with protected areas like sanctuaries or National Parks are ample reminders of the fact that no matter how foolproof our legislation is, exercises in conservation rarely meet with success unless accompanied by the right ethos which in turn are dictated by the ethical positions adopted by the people. That the sacred groves could largely retain their integrity against various pressures over a sufficiently long period of time, is evidence enough for the important role that an ecocentric philosophy could play in conservation. Besides the sacred groves an ecocentric philosophy is a marked feature of the Rengma Naga folk tale described earlier, in the Idu Mishmi folklore on the sparrow, in the accordance of protected status to different birds by various ethnic groups, and in the Goalpara folk song on the egret or heron, where the wail of the trapped bird assumes an almost human quality. It is perhaps no coincidence that several ethnic groups also observe the taboo on killing scavengers like vultures and crows, as their ecological importance could be perceived by the intuitive knowledge of the ancients.

Erosion of traditional values

The rapid spread of consumeristic values and a emainstreamÕ culture that tend to smother cultural diversity and consequently result in an erosion of traditional values may be perceived as the major threats to the traditional conservation systems in Northeastern India. The electronic media are especially instrumental in propagating the attainment of material affluence as the ultimate goal in the life of an individual. Dasmann (1988) termed those traditional communities who use primitive technology to harvest their resources from a limited catchment area as the ecosystem people. However, the ecosystem people are now under constant threat from the biosphere people (Dasmann, 1988) who employ modern technology to gather their resources from all over the world and consequently try to lure the ecosystem people to accept their exploitative and consumerist value systems. The onus, therefore lies on the biosphere people to exercise restraint in their profligate use of resources and instead learn the art of ecological prudence (Gadgil, 1995) from the ecosystem people. Another critical factor is the creation of ecological refugees (Gadgil, 1995) who are ecosystem people displaced from their original territory and forced to colonize new areas. Due to their lack of knowledge about and attachment to these new localities, the ecological refugees also tend to be profligate in their resource use. During this study we have observed that ecological refugees such as fishermen colonizing a new wetland in Cachar, Assam, did not exhibit any concern for the new habitat, and were most profligate in their resource use by resorting to overfishing and use of fine-mesh nets to destroy fish spawns and eggs. The traditional restraint which they were exercising in the area where they originally belonged to, is no longer adhered to in the new habitat.


Cairns (1994) says that in a way, the human societies and natural systems are co-evolving whereby they interact so closely that each exerts a strong selective force on the other. However, he further states that such a coevolution could be either benign or hostile, and if we intend to guide our future course along the former path, then we shall have to redefine the worth of the other biological species as well as of the natural systems and processes that provide us with a host of ecosystem services (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 1991) free of cost, such as clean air, pure water, medicines, fossil fuels, building materials and the like. Just as we have respect for the evolution of the human civilization, we also ought to exhibit similar respect for the evolution of other species and natural systems. Such an ethics would perhaps be all the more unifying and integrative in the sense that the elements of irrationality or mysticism in recognizing intrinsic value in non-humans or in inanimate objects of which the abiotic compartment of natural systems is made of could be dispensed with, so that it is acceptable to the most hard-core rationalist as well. Thus a scientific and evolutionary basis of enature-worshipÕ could be established which could transcend cultural and religious differences in the perception of nature. As we have seen in the examples cited in this paper, the inherent respect for nature in the traditional societies of Northeastern India has enabled them to offer complete protection to natural systems that modern societies, despite being armed with sophisticated technologies and powerful legislations could not ensure. No effort should be spared to help these ecosystem people withstand the burgeoning pressures of consumerism that increasingly threaten their traditional value systems.


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Table 1. Conservation-oriented taboos in tribes and other ethnic groups of Northeastern India.

Animal(s) Protected Through Taboo

Tribe/Ethnic Group

State in N.E. India

Deer, wild boar, and other animals in mating season; pregnant female and young animals; leader of a group of deer/wild boar.

Various tea garden comm.-unities, Hrankhawl, Hmar & Debbarman tribes

Assam, Tripura, Mizoram

Elephant, Tiger, Monkey, Owl, Vulture, House Crow, Raven

Various tea garden communities


Elephant, Song birds, certain snakes


Assam, Tripura

Monkey, Otter


Assam, Meghalaya

Elephant, Eagle, Parrot, Hill Mayna



Hoolock Gibbon, Tiger, Python, Wild Goat, Bulbul (bird), Frog

Rongmai naga

Assam, Manipur

Tortoise, Snail, Channa morulius (fish), Small eel, Some catfishes, Snakes

Ningthouja clan of Meitei

Manipur, Assam

Egg and meat of all animals, some catfishes, small eel, Channa morulius, Snail

Khuman clan of Meitei

Manipur, Assam

Field rat

Khabanganba clan

Manipur, Assam


Moirang clan


Parrot, Owl, Elephant, Monkey, Jackal

Muslim trapper


Sparrow, Jackal, Crow, Eagle, Vulture

Muslim nomad


Monkey, Elephant, Songbirds

Muslim nomad


All poisonous and non-poisonous snakes

Worshippers of Goddess eManasaÕ


Herons, Egrets, and Cormorants in heronries during mating/nesting season

Most communities in valley areas


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