Khonoma, where the environment is sacred

Khonoma village; photo by rajkumar1220, via Flickr Creative Commons

Khonoma village; photo by rajkumar1220, via Flickr Creative Commons

Built on impossibly hilly land, the village of Khonoma is a model of environmental conservation and community spirit. The village lies in the northeastern state of Nagaland in India and is an example of tradition in service of humanity.

We hear so much about selfish interests and environmental recklessness, but in Khonoma villagers have built an irrigation system based on making sure everyone benefits. For more than 600 years they have farmed paddies carved in tiers along their steep hills. Everyone’s paddy receives an equal amount of water, thanks to a heritage of cooperation and mutual concern.

They plant alder trees to conserve water and feed the soil. They ban hunting, in spite of its place in the traditions of the Naga people. Their insistence on working communally to preserve the environment that nurtures them has made them a destination for ecotourism. Whether that success will erode what they value remains to be seen, but for the past decade they have been a model of sustainability and social equity.

What a contrast Khonoma is to the Snake River Valley of my childhood. When I was in high school, we used to say, “Flush the toilet. Jerome [or whatever community we were poking fun at] needs the water.”

Beneath the joking lay a grim reality. Water was a scarce commodity in dry southern Idaho. Fights over irrigation rights were an accepted fact of life.

Now NASA is saying California may be bone dry in as little as a year. And still the only real plan they have for safeguarding and sharing water is a hope and a prayer. A February poll showed that only 34% of the state’s voters were open to water rationing.

It is time for all of us who share the planet to look to the Khonomas of the world for models. We can do this. We humans are cleverer and more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for. We can decide John Donne was right, “No man is an island…We need one another so I will defend each man as my brother, each man as my friend.”

Today the poet would use language that clearly included women among the friends on a common island, but the sentiment is still apt. We need each other. We are interconnected. We share the planet. We can all live joyously, without destroying our common heritage.



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