ITANAGAR: A controversial Buddhist monk from Arunachal Pradesh, Lobsang Gyatso, who has been protesting plans to construct potentially damaging hydropower projects in the state’s Mon region has won Sanctuary Asia’s Wildlife Service Award.

Sanctuary Asia is one of India's leading wildlife, conservation and environment magazines that was started by Bittu Sahgal in 1981 to raise awareness among Indians of their disappearing natural heritage.

Gyatso, a polarising figure, is a key member of the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF) that has been fighting proposals to set up numerous dams in Tawang and West Kameng districts that are part of plans to explore the state’s immense hydropower potential.

There are currently 31 memorandums of agreement that the state government has signed with various power developers to construct dams in the two districts ranging from smaller projects like the 2.40 megawatt Paikangrong to the 800-MW Tawang-II project.

The SMRF contends that the projects are damaging to the fragile ecosystem, apart from being disrespectful of local religious customs and beliefs.

The SMRF and Gyatso (sometimes referred to as ‘Anna’ Lama for his activism) gained a major victory earlier this year when the National Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance given to the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in Tawang.

Those opposed to the project claim that it directly impacts a three-kilometre stretch of the river which is a critical wintering site of the vulnerable black-necked crane, one of only two such sites in India. The black-necked crane is held in high regard by the local Buddhist Monpa people.

Sanctuary Asia said that SMRF and Gyatso have “fought the battle to protect Tawang’s rivers and culture at various levels– local rallies and campaigns, meeting parliamentarians in Delhi, reporting environment and forest violations to the MoEFCC, media advocacy, community mobilisation, legal action and documentation of culturally and ecologically sensitive sites affected by certain destructive hydroelectric projects.

“Despite hurdles, he and SMRF continue their uphill battle to protect the rivers, wildlife and culture of Tawang. His work has resulted in many villages in the area adopting Gram Sabha resolutions against destructive projects impacting cultural sites, livelihoods and wildlife species,” it said.

Gyatso grabbed headlines in the state earlier this year when he was arrested for leading villagers from Gongkhar, the site for the six megawatt Mukto Shakangchu project, opposing the reconstruction of a spillway which they claimed had broken because of substandard work.

His release and subsequent re-arrest sparked outrage in the usually quiet town of Tawang. On May 2, a protest outside the Tawang police station by those demanding his release ended when two men died from bullet wounds after security personnel began firing at the crowd.

Although two separate investigations into the events of the day were conducted, the reports are yet to be released by the state government.

Another recipient of the award from the Northeast is journalist-turned-environmental activist Bano Haralu from Nagaland.

Haralu quit her job as TV journalist to set up the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust in 2010. Her trust was instrumental in conducting a survey to determine the status of wildlife for the state forest department in eight locations that used camera traps for the first time in Nagaland.

In October 2012, she led a team from Conservation India to Pangti village near the Doyang Reservoir in Wokha district that uncovered the massacre of thousands of migrating Amur Falcons. She was part of the efforts that eventually resulted in the Pangti Village Council announcing a ban on the killing and trapping of the Amur Falcons under its jurisdiction on the eve of the migratory season in 2013.

Haralu and her team shaped the ‘Friends of the Amur Falcon’ campaign and adopted ‘Under the Canopy’, a manual that provides a window to wildlife education in Northeast India. With support from the Bombay Natural History Society, Wildlife Conservation Society, Wildlife Conservation Trust and Raptor Research and Conservation Foundation, four Eco Clubs for children from the ages of nine to 11 have been established in villages.

Sanctuary Asia called her “an intelligent, committed trailblazer” who has “crafted one of the country’s most staggering conservation success stories and is a pillar of conservation in India”.