Tisha Srivastav interviews Rita Banerji, award winning Indian wildlife filmmaker and founder member of a new Northeastern initiative called the Green Hub.
(Green Hub Video from September 2015 shows how a herd of elephants enter Tezpur town, the authorities and people move fast in ensuring their safety, cutting electricity to avoid electrocution. By evening, ensuring their safe exit passage without any harm or panic to animal or human life.)
Q1 This video shot near the Green Hub premises in Tezpur, Assam seems to tell a different and positive story of quick, local action? Is the Green Hub about ordinary folk finding their own voice and telling their own stories?
Rita Banerji (RB here on): Yes, I think it is very important the way stories are told, especially in the space of human – wildlife encounters. We do hear of conflict in mainstream media, which is supported by sensational visuals. However the work which goes behind resolving these situations – by the people on the ground like the forest department officials, local people or NGOs is hardly highlighted. That is the gap that Green Hub is here to fill, to bring out stories of solutions and positive action. I think people need to see that as well.
Q2 What else is the Green Hub intending to do?
RB: The Green Hub is trying to do two things simultaneously – one to engage the youth of the Northeast in conservation through the use of the visual medium. Second, to build a digital archive of work related to wildlife, environment and people’s biodiversity. This is being done through the Green Hub fellowship, where youth from across the North-eastern region are selected annually, for training in video documentation. They then intern with conservation organizations to get a real understanding of issues on the ground. Representing remote tribal areas, marginalized communities as well as urban spaces, these Green Hub fellows are envisioned to be the influencers of change.
Hub Fellows Rihan & Wanmai @ the WTI campsite in Karbi Hills, Assam for their internship. The elephant shot on the road is on their first day in the field.
Q3 How is the Green Hub different from just say, getting a fellowship to report on issues?
RB: I think the key thing is the fellowship is primarily for youth belonging to the indigenous communities, and are thus from the region. Their life is intertwined with the issues we are talking about. The fellowship is an enabling space for them to think about their own resources, their own region and their own future. And through the digital medium bring out local narratives, local voices and the value of indigenous knowledge. The fellowship is not really about reporting issues, but really looking into solutions and resolutions.
Q4 Give us an example or two of your 2015 Fellows and their background?
RB:Most of the fellows are from indigenous communities in remote areas. Sital, a 28 year old single parent of two children is from the Nyshi tribe, cannot read and write but is growing into one of the best videographers – and helping document the Hornbill Conservation project in Pakke, Arunachal Pradesh. Tsuseki and Limthure come from Fakim village in Nagaland, on the Indo-Myanmar border. It takes them four days to reach the Green Hub premises in Tezpur, Assam. Zakhuma, a forest guard is capturing incredible images of the fauna in Dampa Tiger Reserve. Hiskiya, a footballer who got selected for the under 19 team, could not make it due to riots on the way, is keen to help the children from his village not to lose out on opportunities.
The current batch of 19 Fellows are from Arunachal, Meghalaya, Assam, Mizoram and Assam.
I think we are at a time where it is really important to move away from conflict, find solutions and move towards the equitable growth of the communities. By engaging the youth in projects that are establishing new paradigms of conservation – that look both at preserving our natural resources as well as livelihood, we are hoping to create a collective of youth who push their mindset, towards finding sustainable ways ahead. The cross cultural experiences and communicating back and forth from and to the communities is a significant aspect.
Training program underway @ the Green Hub premises, Tezpur, Assam
Q5 Why the Northeast? Is it because it has been a blind spot for most Indians?
RB: In its political history, the Northeast has been marred by negligence and as a consequence of that, insurgency and violence. Through the Green Hub, one hopes to open for the youth, a move away from despair and violence. Renewing their love and respect for nature can be a stronger assurance for a more equitable future for them. Secondly to share with the world, the incredible work happening with conservation, traditional knowledge and livelihoods in the Northeast by different individuals, groups and organizations. And in this way creating a web of learning and positive action, empowering the youth in building the region back.
Q6 Tell us about your own engagement with this region, it started with shooting a film?
RB: Yes, we (i.e. my colleagues and I at Dusty Foot Productions) started working in the Northeast in 2002, documenting a project over five years on the rehabilitation of the Himalayan Black Bear. While filming this project we had many questions – whether traditional hunting for wild meat was a sustainable practice? What was the future of wildlife and the people here, with large scale decimation of natural habitat? This led to the making of our film The Wild Meat Trail which won a Wild Screen award in 2010, popularly known as the Green Oscar.
Rita Banerji & the Dusty Foot Productions team, filming with Nyshi tribesmen for THE WILD MEAT TRAIL
Q7 Filmmakers usually make their film and return? What made your team go further?
RB: We felt the film was not enough and it was important to work with the community directly. We began with ‘Under the Canopy’ – an education initiative involving teachers and community members to dialogue about their eco system in 2008. And with the help of North East Network (NEN) an NGO working on women’s issues, it expanded to an Eco-Club program in Nagaland’s Chizami village. This was a three year program for children between 10 -14yrs to observe their ecosystem through video, photography, field learnings as well as creative writing and music. This model then just grew in an organic way with more and more collaborators like the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust (NWBCT) and Conservation India (CI). It is this collaborative partnership which gets a larger landscape with the Green Hub.
Haiku by children of Chizami Eco-Club, Nagaland
Q8 What has been the impact so far of Green Hub in 2015?
RB: The Green Hub is in its first year, so it is probably too early to talk of an impact. However the value of video documentation in this space is being recognized. Being based in the region – our fellows have been able to document stories at short notice – like the release of the pygmy hogs in May 2015, the Amur Falcon Football tournament in Nagaland, as well as the story around the elephants in Tezpur town. The elephants in Tezpur clip was screened by well-known ecologist Vidya Athreya at a conference on human animal conflict. It is also being shared further as an example of how these stories can be told, looking at facts.
In the last three months of the internship program significant documentation has been done of the fauna of the region – insects, birds, mammals – which will build towards our outreach program. Also in Tezpur under our outreach program, workshops have been conducted with local schools, as well as the CRPF.
At another level – Green Hub is emerging as a unique space, bringing together the youth from different states and communities, replacing conflict with convergence, transcending borders of language and identity.
Q9 Where is your funding coming from, as of now?
RB: The seed money came from a UDP micro capital grant for the training program. ONGC sponsored our equipment and the organization Caring Friends, came in as one of the key donors. Currently, we are raising funds for the next batch, as well as for the growing aspects of the Green Hub Archive and outreach.
Q10 Does the Northeast have a one stop digital resource for all kinds of research material or is that something you are seeking to build?
RB: The Green Hub is aiming to be the first digital archive in the region focusing on wildlife, environment and people’s biodiversity. The idea is to optimize the material generated for education and outreach, completely open to being used by multiple stakeholders. This will come a full circle by connecting to universities, institutes and other archival spaces. Across the Northeastern region, there is tremendous work happening in the field of conservation – from research on wildlife habitats, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, human – animal interactions, community based conservation programs, revival of traditional systems and indigenous community forest areas.
Inaccessibility and remoteness of the area makes it tough to share the projects and learnings, each of which are helping form new paradigms of conservation today, as well as giving insights into realities on the ground. Video documentation is a strong tool for bridging this gap, not only for recording and archiving the work, but also creating a visually current database of the flora and fauna of the region.
The Green Hub is keen to offer local communities and conservation networks, a dynamic and interactive space, both physical and virtual. To video document, connect, share, design outreach and preservation programs. Simultaneously the digital archive will have a strong online component for learning, research, education and training; and with the future possibility of connecting it at a national or even global level to archives, universities, learning centers and traditional knowledge resources.
The young can work with local repositories of traditional knowledge, use new tools and find ways forward.