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By Carmo Noronha


“Humans do not weave the web of life, they are merely a strand in it…………..” so said a wise Red Indian Chief over a century ago. Undoubtedly, he knew a thing or two about the environment and how to manage natural resources very much like our own local communities. Today the rate at which we are exploiting our natural resources – ever ready to cut down our forests, dig deep down into the earth looking for coal, limestone, uranium; put at risk our water resources – foolishly believing that we are the weavers of life………one would imagine there is no tomorrow!! It’s quite ironic that come “World Environment Day” I will be mouthing pious platitudes, talking about Sustainable Development Goals, Climate Change, banning of plastic bags and referring to  nature as “Mother Earth”!!! After 66 years of existence on “Mother Earth”, it’s finally dawned on me that “Mother Nature” doesn’t care a dam for humans, and it doesn’t matter to him/her!!! whether humans survive for one year or a hundred years or a thousand years……!

In a relationship of two unequal’s, it’s actually foolhardy to try and take on the, stronger partner and although I consider myself evolved and intelligent (after all I am a human being), as part of the human race I’ve merrily joined the crowd in taking on the earth and then looking for solutions for the problems we’ve collectively created – pollution, climate change, garbage, plastic bags, rivers changing colors, fish dying, coal mining, stone quarrying…………Maybe I should reflect on the lives of the wise Chief and our own local communities in search of answers. Our first challenge however is…….. we have too many Chiefs and too few Indians!!! Let’s acknowledge very humbly that Nature is stronger and the sooner we accept this, the longer we will live!!

We have recently elected a new Government in our State and quite rightly they are looking seriously at two major sectors that need immediate solutions…education and waste. So, before we destroy the only place where we can find a solution to both these challenges, I take the liberty of sharing a few thoughts…I am referring to forests as teachers!

I’ve never heard of any forest having a Municipality! Doesn’t a forest generate waste? Ofcourse it does! But unlike clever humans it doesn’t give it such smart names as “waste” or “garbage”. When we have waste we need to throw it away, or bury it, or burn it, or throw it in the local water bodies! Where is “away”? For most of us it is a landfill, far away from the urban elite and in the rural hinterlands for the benefit of the poor rural folk. We practice environmental racism without batting an eyelid!!!

What happens in the forest? There is a wonderful system in place where what is not needed by one part of the system is used by another element of the system and there is a very delicate balance. If this balance does get disturbed through natural phenomena, the elements constantly adjust to ensure that the balance is restored. Does our education system reflect this balance? Can’t we design our education system on these lines where the values of inter-dependence, collaborative problem-solving, networking, community are paramount? However, if humans, with greed and competition as their motive invade the forests then the balance is permanently destroyed and we suffer the consequences – death, landslides, lack of water, silting, death of rivers………and then we plead with the Supreme Court to lift the ban on coal mining and cutting of forests so that people can reap the benefits of sustainable livelihoods!!

Across the world indigenous people have from time immemorial practiced the culture of “slash and burn”/ “jhum”. Again, a wonderful sustainable system where balance, inter-dependence, collaboration,is the key. I had the privilege of living with some of the local communities in the Garo Hills and observed this system. In one village, we noticed a family sowing 18 different crop seeds at the same time, using well preserved local seeds and knowing very well that they would be reaping a regular harvest and would have enough to eat. They walked the forests knowing what roots, mushrooms, leaves and herbs could be eaten.  We the experts, condemned this system as being unsustainable and are trying to teach the masters of sustainability with centuries of experience and sustainability ingrained in their culture, the meaning of sustainability!! For them “jhum” is not a system – it is life, it is culture, it is a celebration of diversity and the  generosity of nature.Their teacher has been the forest! The system is unsustainable not because of “jhum”, but because of others who have either destroyed forests or promoted forms of farming to cater to the so called “market economy.”

And what about “garbage”? Walk on a well preserved forest floor and one walks on a cushion. Layers of twigs, leaves, dead animals, moisture, fungi, bacteria and millions of micro-organisms…a natural soil making factory is working 24×7, 365 days year after year. Instead of making landfills can’t we build mini-forest floors? A small team of colleagues started this pilot in Bethany Society, Shillong in January this year. We dug a piece of land 12 feet x 20 feet two feet deep and constructed a shed. In the excavated space we put layers of twigs, charcoal dust, dried leaves, wood chips (Don Bosco Technical School were delighted to give us this), whatever  “kwai” husks we could collect from the hundreds of Kongs dotting the streets of Shillong. We then infused the flooring with micro-organisms and some leaves collected from the jungle and kept the floor moistened. We had a living jungle floor. In Shillong where space is at a premium, we designed vertical compost heaps (4ft x 4ft x 4ft) and filled these with segregated kitchen material, layering every one foot of organic matter with the material from the floor. And now the fun part!! We employed 1 rooster and 10 hens bought from local villages and let them lose in the shed!!They went berserk. They had never seen so much food in all their lives!! They were doing gymnastics on the floor, they could hunt for worms and scratch the soft floor. They jumped on to the compost towers and scratched and turned the food and thus did the work that humans would do. One might ask what is role of humans in all this?

I am reminded of a story told about a monkey and a human being sent to the moon. Before the rocket was launched the human was handed two envelopes, each with instructions. When the human opened the envelope of the monkey there were hundreds of instructions regarding the controls, which buttons to press when……the human was quite impressed by the skills the monkey had and he said to himself ..” if the monkey has so many instructions, I must be having 100 times more to do.” However, when the human opened his own envelope, the instruction was “ Feed the monkey four times a day!!” That’s our role!! Our work force are the chickens, they don’t need salary, PF, Pension, 5th Pay Commission….only segregated organic matter and a shot of our natural antibiotic  every morning!!  No smell, no flies. You can actually sit on the floor and enjoy the company of chickens!! God Bless the rooster. If all goes well, in a year we will have 200 local chickens!! The system can handle 5 tons of organic matter in a week which converts to about 3 tons of compost. Of course we can also feast on 100% natural local chickens and eggs. You don’t need to be an MBA to decide if this is a good proposition. We do this following the principles of “Zero Waste” because it is Ethical, Efficient, and Economic and the most wonderful thing is that Nature does all the work and humans are requested not to interfere. The even more amazing thing is that in the same space, 10 pigs can handle 10 times what chickens can, without any smell or flies.

If we still insist on calling it “Solid Waste Management”, then you can guess why humans were instructed to ”feed the monkey” ! Welcome to Bethany Society, Laitumkhrah, Shillong to see this in action. Our aim is to make Meghalaya the cleanest State in India by 2024….why don’t we collaborate.

And as far as plastic bags are concerned ..” If you can’t reuse it, REFUSE IT!

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]

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