Hariprasad Radhakrishnan, an Intern at Plan Vivo, is currently studying for an MSc in Environment and Development at the University of Edinburgh. Hari's blog puts the spotlight on the Khasi people, an indigenous community in north-east India, and the impacts of the Khasi Hills community REDD+ project. 

This blog was made possible through the insights of different studies, including those conducted by Edinburgh University PhD candidate Shubhi Sharma and Masters student Joshua Shepherd. 

Shubhi independently led and organised a 13-month-long fieldwork assessment amongst the Khasi forest tribe of India, studying the impacts of the project on the tribe. Josh conducted his Masters dissertation exploring the effects of agroforestry and carbon offsetting on the disaster vulnerability of climate frontline communities at various Plan Vivo project sites including the Khasi Hills.

In the lush valleys of the Khasi Hills in north-east India, ancient wisdom and nature come together to create an extraordinary sight—living, green bridges that grow naturally.

These awe-inspiring feats of bioengineering, numbering over a hundred, are scattered throughout north-eastern India.  They stand as a testament to the visionary wisdom and traditional ecological knowledge of the Khasi tribal communities, who are credited with constructing many of these bridges. It takes a decade or more for young, flexible roots woven from one end to another to become strong enough to support the weight of numerous people. These fig-root bridges not only provide vital connections across rivers and streams but also serve as links to a rich historical heritage. 

Khasi traditions are built on a fascinating mix of ecological stories and myths. According to their folklore, there used to be a magical living root ladder, much like the man-made bridges, on top of a peak called U Lum Sohpetbneng. This ladder connected the world of humans with heaven, and sixteen special families in heaven and earth could freely move between these two realms using the ladder. However, when the people on Earth erred—they were tricked into cutting down a sacred tree at Lum Diengiei Peak—their access to heaven was cut off forever. This eco-mythology lives on in Khasi customs even today.

The living, green bridges of the Khasi Hills in north-east India. © Adobe Stock

Sacred groves are an integral part of the Khasi culture and continue to be protected by the communities over several generations. Considered the abode of spirits, deities, and ancestors, sacred groves are currently spread across 1,000 sq km of land in Meghalaya. The Khasis also practice a regenerative farming technique known as ‘jhum cultivation’, which involves clearing a small area of forest for farming and leaving them fallow after a few years to allow for regeneration.

Modern-day Khasis: a shade apart from their ancestors

Today, as modernity hurtles through traditions, the eco-friendly practices of the Khasis are under threat. Shubhi Sharma, who conducted 13-month-long fieldwork on the Khasi Community REDD+ Project as part of her doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh, says that ancient practices are rarely seen today. “The community used to worship the sacred forest and its deities centuries ago, but that doesn't necessarily happen now. And you would be surprised to see how modern and integrated they are with popular culture. When I went there, I was very surprised to see that my assumptions about what a forest community looks like were quite wrong,” she recalls.

The practice of creating fire lines (which involves clearing areas or barriers by removing vegetation or other flammable materials in order to control or contain wildfires) was also quickly fading into oblivion. “This practice has been forgotten for centuries now. They weren’t doing it anymore. It’s only maybe a few people who know how to do that,” the researcher says.

Despite their storied traditions and practices, the Khasis are not immune to the tensions between environmental conservation and development seen across the world. The rising demand for timber, fuelwood, limestone, and coal has increased the pressure on forests in the Khasi Hills. Many local water bodies were also in a state of neglect as piped water became more common.

Amidst these social and economic pressures, the indigenous communities, which manage over 90 per cent of forests in Meghalaya, lacked the financial and technical resources to protect the forests. However, the Khasi Hills Community REDD+ Project began changing this trend.

Reviving the Khasis’ connection with nature

The Khasi Hills project uses a combination of techniques including reforestation, assisted natural regeneration (ANR), fire prevention, and community-based forest management across an area of 27,139 hectares, which includes 9,270 hectares of dense forests and 5,947 hectares of open forests. ANR involves people assisting in the regeneration of forests by removing barriers such as fuelwood collection, grazing and dry-season forest fires.

At present, the project engages 10 indigenous Khasi traditional governments, known as Hima, residing in 86 villages and hamlets, in the fight against deforestation and degradation.

Patches of forest, seen in the picture above from 2014, have been able to regenerate and thrive through the community REDD+ project in the Khasi Hills as seen in the picture below six years later. Credit: Khasi Hills Community REDD+ Project

Sharma notes that the project has had “phenomenal success” in regenerating and conserving the forest. “It's visually apparent that the project has helped regenerate the forests in Khasi Hills,” she says. “The main positive impact of the project has been that it has regenerated a large patch of forests that were quite prone to destruction by forest fires."

The project has also helped revive many traditional practices. Bah Tambor Lyngdoh, the secretary of the Synjuk or Federation which governs the Khasi Hills Community REDD+ Project, says that the practice of creating fire lines has now been revived. “Fire watchers are being engaged in the dry seasons and we see that there are fewer forest fires each year.”

Khasi Hill residents echo Lyngdoh’s views. In a 2022 study, conducted by masters student Joshua Shepherd, a local resident noted “in 2015, there were forest fires everywhere. But in the following years, the fires were few and far between as hundreds of villagers come together to put out fires. During one of the forest fires, the people could limit the fire to 20 ha in just an hour or two without letting it spread to the entire patch spanning 50 ha (sic),” Shepherd’s research quotes a resident as saying.

The project has also helped reinforce the community’s sense of ownership of local forests. “Everyone is taking up the responsibility of controlling fires. We feel that these forests belong to us, and we won't allow any form of destruction. Everyone is working to revive the old practices that started to wane around 50 years ago,” another respondent says.

These real-life accounts are clearly in line with the data: the area affected by forest fires has reduced by nearly 60 per cent from an average of 86 ha per year during 2011-14 to 35 ha in 2015-21 (see: Khasi Hills 2021 Annual Report).

The project has also ensured that the Khasis’ rich traditional ecological knowledge is shared with the wider world through the promotion of ecotourism in the Khasi Hills. As part of the eco-tourism project, villages in the Khasi Hills have been identified for their natural beauty, cultural heritage and proximity to main roads in the region. As tourists seek to learn about the local community's traditional practices, the community now finds greater value in preserving their ancestral knowledge and customs.

Building awareness and resilience

The community now has a greater awareness of unsustainable practices. “We are now spotting new animals in the forests through camera traps. One of the reasons is because people have now reduced hunting for food, thanks to the awareness raised by the project,” says Lyngdoh. Similarly, there has been significant progress in the way quarrying is done in the region. "We are raising awareness about the need to use traditional tools instead of heavy machinery and explosives that could harm the environment and wildlife."

The results of the conservation efforts are tangible, and communities directly benefit in myriad ways. As the forest ecosystems get healthier, the runoff of silt and sediments into water bodies has reduced. This has helped improve the availability of water for drinking and irrigation.  Shepherd’s 2022 research also found that dried-up springs have come back to life, creating access to safe water closer home. These new water sources have also been found to be resilient to the impacts of climate change, especially torrential and increasingly erratic rainfall witnessed in north-eastern India.

The project has also improved the economic resilience of the Khasi people by creating livelihood opportunities through poultry farming, beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, vermicomposting, and agroforestry as opposed to traditional farming, the people’s livelihoods are also less exposed to the vagaries of climate. Shepherd’s 2022 research found that ecological systems and communities are now less vulnerable to climate change, thanks to the successful conservation efforts and livelihoods generated through the project.

The likes of poultry farming, beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, vermicomposting, and agroforestry (as opposed to traditional farming) have provided alternative livelihood opportunities within the Khasi Hills community area. Credit: Khasi Hills Community REDD+ Project

REDD+ strengthens traditional values and systems

Reviving traditional practices is only one part of the puzzle, as there is a need to empower traditional institutions to help sustain them. The project has helped unite Khasi communities and support with capacity-building in planning, monitoring, and reporting systems, as well as bringing in much-needed financial resources over which the traditional institutions have direct control. This is unlike government and donor schemes where management and decision making may be largely in the hands of departmental staff. 

The REDD+ project has been successful in reducing systemic pressures driving deforestation and helped the Khasi community transition to sustainable livelihoods. In the process, it has brought the indigenous communities a step closer to their ancestral practices.

Being the first project of its kind in India, the project has been a focal point for numerous research studies and has influenced state- and national-level policies on REDD+. Other projects, including the World Bank-funded Meghalaya Community Watershed Project, also draw upon experiences from the Khasi Hills.

The project stands as a testament to the REDD+ model, and it shows when done right, it is not only a key component in the fight against climate change but also fosters resilience, generates wider awareness, and strengthens local bonds with nature, whilst reviving local traditions.


Find out more about the Khasi Hills Community REDD+ project here.

Plan Vivo would like to thank all who contributed to this blog, including the various Khasi Hills community members and project participants who provided insights, and all those who contributed their research findings.