In early 2002, Moirangthem Loiya Ngamba from the Meitei community in Manipur began growing plants on the Maru Langol hill range nestled in the northern part of the Imphal valley. Now, nearly 20 years later, the 47-year-old has contributed to the transformation of the once-dry 300-acre hill into a forest.
While Loiya said he has been “adventurous” most of his life, he did not 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 of the world. But the Indian State of Forest Report, 2019, presented a gloomy picture for northeast India as the region witnessed a total decrease of around 765 sq km of forest cover. According to the report, Manipur has suffered the highest loss of 499 sq km of forest cover.
When Loiya was young, he often visited the lush green Koubru peak in the Senapati district of Manipur. Till today, the Meitei people of Manipur regard Mount Koubru as one of the most sacred mountains in the state. “We used to go hiking there,” he said. “We would climb and walk underneath the huge trees. Those moments were magical for me.”
When he came back home after completing his degree in Philosophy at the Madras Christian College in Chennai in 2000, he went back to the mountain range where he hiked as a young boy. The tall trees and the vast green cover had considerably reduced. “I was shocked,” he said.
He, then, set out on an ambition to search for a land where he could plant trees. While he was keen on planting on the Koubru range, he said, it would have been difficult because of the distance from where he could camp. So, he started looking for hills nearby. His search led him to the Maru Langol hill range that was barren. He started living on top of the hill in a small hut that he built himself and went on to live there for the next six years observing and studying his surroundings.
The land where Loiya began planting comes under the state forest reserve region. Any settlement is considered an illegal encroachment by the government but according to Loiya, because he was interested in creating a green cover in the area, the forest officials did not consider it an illegal act. Loiya named the forest Punshilok, which means “a spring of life” in the Meitei language.
Ruella Rahman Khound, an independent filmmaker from Assam, who made a short film on Loiya earlier this year, told Mongabay-India that while his work is “very local”, the significance of it could be much larger. “People are noticing what he has been doing, some are also volunteering to work with him, and that is how the impact is going to grow.”
“At the end of the day,” she said, “he is a simple man”, who will continue to do his work irrespective of whether “someone is watching him or not”. One of the key takeaways for Khound from Loiya’s story is self-evaluation. “You see a man who has spent 19-20 years regrowing a forest – when you see that level of commitment, you realise that this is something that cannot be achieved short term, he is in it for the long haul,” Khound added.
Two of the biggest success stories, of regrowing forest in India, are that of Loiya’s and Jadav Payeng from Majuli in Assam, popularly known as The Forest Man of India. “That fact that both have emerged from northeast India is remarkable for me,” said Rajkamal Goswami, a conservation scientist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment.
“North East is considered to be wild but these kinds of efforts or narratives present the real picture that the region is not all lush, green and remote but there are problems leading to deforestation,” Goswami said. He also believes that this will inspire and motivate others to take up similar efforts and protect existing forests around them.
Creating fire line
When Loiya was cultivating the forest, he said, he did not have to water the plants because he would plant right before the monsoons and the rainwater would naturally take care of the environment. This pattern has been followed by him consistently, except for some plants that require watering when planted during the off-season.
Forest fires, often caused by someone’s negligence, are common, and it does not take long for them to spread. In order to prevent forest fires, Loiya along with volunteers from the Wildlife and Habitat Protection Society, an organisation he founded along with a few friends, make a fire line around the forest every year in November.
A fire line is a gap in plantation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire. “It takes more than a month to make our forest line,” Loiya, who now lives about 15 minutes away from Punshilok, in Phayeng village, said. “We all live together during the month of November. This fire line is proving to be effective in fighting forest fires.”
The forest now has numerous varieties of plants, and among them are 30 different species of bamboo, around 20 species of orchids. There are a lot of trees such as fig, jackfruit, tamarind, mango, mulberry, oak, magnolia, neem and gulmohar. “We keep adding,” Loiya said. “It is a project of a lifetime and will have to be continued over generations.”
The forest has also been home to barking deer, crab-eating mongoose, different types of rescued snakes, a variety of cicadas and spiders. There are birds like bulbul, blue magpie, kites and owls.
“It is also suitable for the migratory birds to arrive in Punshilok as it is guarded 24 hours, and nobody can hunt or kill them,” Loiya added. “There are a lot of birds that come from the eastern Himalayan region during the winter like sunbirds for instance.”
Initially, people thought Loiya was there to capture land. “I did hear some rumours like that, but no one ever told me anything directly because my work has not had any negative impact. People have mostly appreciated what I am trying to do,” he said.
Environmental education, Loiya said, cannot be confined to textbooks. Children need to be taken to the forests, they need to go camping, and enjoy the wilderness, inhale the clean air and experience the purity of the place. “Once they start feeling it, only then will they be able to protect it.”
Conservation is key
There were few local organisations that knew about Loiya’s work and some newspapers carried small articles about him. Then, under the banner of the Films Division of India, documentary filmmaker Farha Khatun directed a film titled The Jungle Man…Loiya in 2018.
In 2019, Balipara Foundation, a non-profit that works with local communities at the intersection of nature and economics, awarded the Nature Conservancy Award to Loiya. “He has been working on a small patch of land that he is intensively managing. He looks after the forest so that there is no destruction. “Even when people enter, he makes sure that they take care of the area,” said Joanna Dawson who works as an anthropological visioner for Balipara Foundation, adding that Loiya focuses on natural regeneration. “He has essentially planted from scratch so it is very much in the classic sense what people would call forest restoration.”
Loiya is yet to receive any big funding but many people associated with Wildlife and Habitat Protection Society and a few others have helped him monetarily. The main funder though is his own brother who owns a pharmacy in Imphal. “My mother, too, used to give me a couple of hundreds when I lived on top of the hill for those six years,” he said. He also considers his wife and two children his biggest support system.
Loiya laments that the earth is dying, the population is constantly increasing and it is getting beyond the earth’s capacity to sustain more life forms. “It is not logical to prey on something that’s resources are limited,” Loiya said. “Conservation is key, otherwise we do not have a future. In order to survive, we have to nurture and protect the environment – our mountains, trees, oceans and rivers.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.