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Green warriors of the Garo hills

By Teresa Rehman

Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills are under serious threat from illegal coal mining. The Garo Students Union, and its dynamic leader Prosper S Marak, have been battling to preserve the biodiversity of this region. Marak was declared Earth Hero for 2009 and also won the Young Naturalist Award for 2009

 Garo Students Union, and its dynamic leader Prosper S Marak

In Meghalaya’s inaccessible South Garo Hills, an ‘eco-mutiny’ went virtually unnoticed. Except for the fact that eco-warrior Prosper S Marak, president of the southern zone of the powerful student body, the Garo Students Union (GSU), was declared one of the Earth Heroes of 2009 by Sanctuary Asia and the Royal Bank of Scotland, and was awarded the prestigious ‘Young Naturalist Award’ in December 2009.   The award statement read: “The Young Naturalist Award is presented to the 24-year-old emerging green warrior Prosper S Marak for his work to protect the biodiversity of the rich Garo hills of Meghalaya, and who continues to inspire young men and women in the state to protect their natural heritage.” Prosper Marak grew up just outside the forests of Balpakram National Park and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary. He learnt to love and respect nature at a very young age.  

Marak was instrumental in leading a youth uprising in five hamlets in Gongrot, in South Garo Hills, taking the ‘illegal’ miners completely by surprise. In his acceptance speech, he said: “I accept this award on behalf of my colleagues in GSU who have fought tooth-and-nail to preserve Balpakram National Park and the amazing wildlife of the Garo Hills.”  

The story goes back to November 2008 when an attempt was made to open up a new coal mine on the periphery of Balpakram National Park. Like all coal mining in Meghalaya, no environmental clearance or related permissions had been taken for the mine. There are approximately seven laws under which clearance has to be sought by state and central bodies before any mining activity can be initiated. In any case, coal mining cannot be undertaken by private individuals as all coal (including that in Meghalaya) was nationalised in 1967.   In blatant violation of the law of the land, ‘illegal’ coal mines continue to flourish all over Meghalaya. Local people in the Garo hills and other parts of the state operate the mines on their lands without any mining leases by the state government, under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, that was amended in 1976.  

The disputed mine was being planned in an aking called Gongrot (tracts of community land in the Garo hills are called aking). Since Gongrot is a remote aking, a road has first to be built to connect the mining area to the existing PWD road. This connecting road would have passed partly through Gongrot and partly through another aking called Halwa Atong. In order to build the road, standing forests in both akings would have had to be cut down.  

In July last year, contractors came with bulldozers and began clearing the forests. The GSU swung into action. They seized the bulldozer and handed it over to the police. A protracted legal battle ensued; in the intervening period young men and women cleared the debris and began to reforest the area. They took turns patrolling the restored lands to ensure that the miners did not return to destroy what had been resurrected. “This was a symbolic act of taking the land back from the miners and returning it to the forest. All these years, our ancestors have been protecting our forests,” says Marak.   The protests startled the illegal mining mafia as well as the government that is reluctant to regulate mining in the state. Indeed, Meghalaya is the only state in the country where private ‘illegal’ mining flourishes without any hindrance. Now, thanks to the pressure, Meghalaya has put together a mining policy that is being closely assessed and will have an impact far beyond Balpakram. 

Marak’s associate Ginseng Sangma, also a student, believes the protests were the least they could do for the community and the forests they grew up in. They convinced over 100 school and college students to join in the innovative non-violent protest by replanting the forest stretch that had been destroyed by the bulldozers.  

Sangma, now a second-year BA student at Captain Williamson Magor Memorial College in Baghmara reminisces about the early days when many species of wild animals roamed the forests, including elephants and leopards. “Now, even the lush streams have dried up due to the rampant deforestation. Forests have been cut and converted into orchards. If the trend goes on, all our natural treasures will disappear and there will be nothing left for future generations,” he says.  Protests against illegal mining have been ongoing in Meghalaya’s Garo hills where a group of NGOs and citizens have set up the Chitmang Hills Anti-Mining Forum against unplanned and unscientific mining. Chitmang is the name of a peak -- the highest in the South Garo Hills -- that’s considered sacred among Garo society. In view of its importance and considering the threat to the entire region from mining, the anti-mining forum has chosen its name well.   Spearheaded by the Samrakshan Trust, the forum also comprises the Garo Students Union (GSU), Youth Development and Vigilance Committee, Southern Youth and Cultural Organisation, Atong Cultural Organisation, Siju Youth Socio-Cultural Organisation, Achik Tourism Society, Achik Youth and Cultural Organisation and Siju Ecotourism and Cultural Society.  Arpan Sarma of the Samrakshan Trust says: “What is happening in Balpakram is a subset of a larger malaise. People are disgusted with the rampant illegal mining in the state.”  

Apart from Balpakram National Park and Baghmara Reserve Forest, the area comprises nearly 400 sq km of community-owned lands spread over 36 akings. A large proportion of this land is forested and used by local people to earn a livelihood.  

Samrakshan helps local communities set up community conservation reserves aimed at preserving forested habitats on community-owned lands. It is also working in Balpakram-Baghmara to ensure that elephant habitats and critical corridors remain accessible for use by the animals.  

The forum has appealed to various statutory and traditional tribal authorities. “We have sent a petition to the regional office of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Shillong regarding violations of the Forest Conservation Act. We have also filed a complaint with the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council regarding prosecution of the headmen of Gongrot and Halwa Atong akings for felling standing forests to pave the way for illegal mining,” says Asith Sangma, president of the forum.  Asith explains that Balpakram National Park, apart from being an ecological hotspot, is also a sacred place in the hills. It is called ‘land of the eternal death’ in Garo mythology, as it is believed that the spirits of the dead reside here.  

“We don’t want to create another Jharia (Jharkhand)-like situation here. We will have to protect this area at the cost of our lives,” Asith says. Jharia, a town in Jharkhand, had to be shifted due to coal mine fires that could not be controlled.  

(Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in northeast India. She was awarded the Sarojini Naidu Award for Best Reporting on Women and Panchayati Raj in 2007 and the Sanskriti Award for Excellence in Journalism 2009)  

Infochange News & Features, February 2010