On December 29, news of wildfire at the Dzukou valley sandwiched between Nagaland and Manipur received much attention and concerns over the threat it posed on its ecosystem. The Government of Nagaland, the Government of Manipur and the Centre stepped in to douse the fire. The cause of the fire remains unknown, and the fire was doused after almost two weeks which spread up to Mt. Iso of Senapati district, Manipur. The wildfire at Dzukou valley throws up the question of climate change, tourism, overlapping of the valley between Manipur and Nagaland etc. What is at the heart of Dzukou valley is that it is the land of Naga tribes, superimposed by the Nagaland-Manipur border much later.
Naga tribes lived in contiguous lands spanning across the current Assam in the west (partly), Manipur in the south (several districts), Arunachal in the north (partly), Sagaing region and Kachin state in Myanmar, and Nagaland state. They still inhabit these areas, but are divided by the boundary with the design and project of the colonial administration and post-colonial state. The boundary placed Nagas into different states and countries, yet they continue to assert themselves as one, wearing their Naga identity on their sleeves.
Dzukou valley is well known for its scenic landscapes, and flowers of varying shapes and shades spread across the valley. The demarcation of Dzukou valley by boundary, one in Nagaland and the other in Manipur, goes against the spirit and interest of the Nagas. Over the period, as the region began to experience the opening of its hills, mountains, and villages, tourism along with the assurance of development began to paraglide into their backyards. Since then, Dzukou valley has become an attraction to tourists from recent decades. Trekking to Dzukou valley is promoted and organised during the Hornbill festival of Nagaland celebrated annually in the first week of December. The opening of Dzukou valley is gradually experiencing an influx of tourists from neighbouring states and outside the northeast region, and local picnic goers.
Staying true to the land and its intrinsic place in the custom, culture and belief system of Naga, the community aspect attached to land is maintained. Southern Angami Youth Organisation (SAYO) takes charge of overlooking Dzukou valley and its maintenance and handling of tourists. The valley is declared a plastic-free zone. It has also banned camping in the valley and staying overnight in the caves of the valley. It only allows tourists to either stay at the guesthouses atop the mountain overlooking the valley, or pitch tents in areas around the guest houses. These rules should be seen in regards to tourist behaviour and awareness of climate change and changing ecosystems.
Tourism tends to treat landscapes and culture of indigenous communities as an object to romanticise and feed into their imaginations of the holiday. It generally subdues interest and concerns of indigenous communities and promotes tourism in the name of providing jobs and opportunities. This leads to seeing economic well-being giving its yield to everyone as the sole purpose of tourism, whereas in reality, it is a breeding ground for inequality if it remains unchecked and unregulated. Tourism has the potential of orienting livelihoods and cultural practices of indigenous people as per the demand and commands of tourists. It may also induce them to abandon their way of life and conform to the diktats of the tourism industry. In such a scenario, the state must continue to ensure that the fragility of community, culture and ecosystem in the face of tourism is protected and see to it that the existing relationship between indigenous people and its natural surrounding is not disturbed and exploited.
The recent wildfire at Dzukou valley raised concern for its landscape and ecosystem. It is worth reflecting on the occurrence of wildfire, the underlying causes, and its likely consequences. It would be preposterous to draw anything into the case of wildfire at Dzukou valley from wildfires occurring in recent years across the world especially in the lands of indigenous people. However, looking at the report of these wildfires, and emerging trends of warmer temperature, lesser rainfall and rapid urbanisation in the northeast region of India, it signals an alarming message to be drawn for indigenous people, environmentalists, and the state. Wildfires across the world are attributed to a warmer climate, drier vegetations, depletion of soil moisture etc. In such a given situation, a spark of fire can turn into an inferno with a potential to ravage and spread far and wide.
Fire is intrinsic in the lifeworld of Nagas, for it is integrated into their cultural practice and ceremonies. Jhum cultivation, for instance, holds an important aspect in their lives where its harvest is followed by burning of the cultivated area with fire, to replenish the land for the prospect of cultivation. In the biggest festival of Zeliangrong (comprising four tribes of Naga, Zeme, Liangmai, Rongmei, and Inpui), Gaan Ngai, creation of sacred fire, Mhairapmei using wood and bamboo marks one of the many activities on the first day of the five-day festival. The fire produced is distributed to every household in the village for goodwill and well-being in the year to come. ‘Fear of fire’ is counted as the language and concept of colonialists to suppress indigenous knowledge and practice involving fire which to them is sacred and life embodying element.
As the lives of Nagas are being stared at increasingly by transformational changes, there is an urgency to invoke, imbibe, and inculcate the cultural value and indigenous knowledge for their sustenance and survival. The wildfire episode at Dzukou valley is a message in disguise for all the Nagas and the times to come.