Damned by nature; damned by man

26 10 2012

I am a forest officer from India. I want to narrate a story. No, my story is not about elephants or tigers or snakes. Those stories about India are commonplace. I wish to narrate a simple story about people, the least-known part of the marathon Indian fable.

Humans are said to have arrived in India very early in world civilisation. Some were raised here from the seed of their ancestors; others migrated here from all over the world. Over the centuries these people occupied every inch of soil that could support life. The population of India today is 1.2 billion. Each year, India’s population increases by a number nearly equal to the complete population of Australia. Such a prolific growth of numbers is easy to explain; the fertile soil, ample water and tropical warmth of India support the growth of all life forms.

Not all numbers are great, however, and big numbers sometimes exact the price from the wrong persons.

This is my story.

I went to work in the state of Meghalaya in north-eastern India. Pestilence, floods and dense vegetation have made north-eastern India a most inhospitable place. Population is scanty by Indian standards. Life does not extend much beyond the basic chores of finding food and hearth. In the hills, far away from the bustle of modern civilisation, primitive tribal families practice agriculture in its most basic form. Fertilisers are unknown to them, so they cultivate a parcel of land until it loses its fertility, ultimately abandoning it to find other arable land. When the original parcel has finally recovered its fertility after a few years, they move back. It is a ceaseless cycle of migrating back and forth – the so-called practice known as ‘shifting cultivation’.  Ginger, peas, pumpkin, brinjal and sweet potato can be seen growing on numerous slopes in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya beside the huts of the farmers built on stilts, with chickens roosting below.

When I reached Meghalaya and looked about at the kind of world I had never seen before, I admit that I found the tribal folk a little strange. They lived in a way that would have appeared bizarre to a modern community. The people did not seem to know how many centuries had passed them by. For me as a forest officer, what looked worst was that that these people appeared to have no comprehension of the value of forests for the planet. They built their huts with wood. They cooked on firewood. Most of their implements were made of wood. A whole tree would be cut and thrown across the banks to make a bridge over a stream. Above all, their crazy practice of shifting cultivation would ultimately remove all the remaining forest.

I decided my main job in this place was to save the forest from its own people, and we enforced Indian laws to preserve the forests.

On one occasion my staff saw a young local man running with an illegally obtained log of wood and started to chase him, waving their guns in the air to scare him. He ran barefoot amid dense bushes a long distance before we managed to apprehend him. I had bruises on my arms and a leech hanging from my armpit drinking my blood by the time the race was over. I admit that in my anger at the time, I wanted to impale the man to the earth at the spot where he had cut down the tree. It was not the leeches and the bruises that angered me. The tree he was carrying was (until quite recently) in perfect condition.

But Meghalaya isn’t populated solely by subsistence-farming villagers – there are also a few successful traders originally from big cities who have settled in this economically depressed region. They dress smartly and speak impeccable English. At the time, I remembered wondering how these more sophisticated types could be maintaining their relatively lavish lifestyles among the poor villagers who walked barefoot in the dense forests. On a couple of occasions I dropped in at the home of a prominent trader.  He hosted me graciously in his beautiful home. I admit that I enjoyed these visits because they were my only link to the civilisation I had become used to prior to moving to Meghalaya. But I never visited the home of any tribal villager, for what could I talk to them about anyway?

Part of my role as forest officer was to organise the collection of logs found cut in the forest – apparently by tribal youths. These my staff and I gathered and stacked neatly into lots for auction. My staff were particularly proud that cars would line up outside our office every time we held an auction – it was something of a local event.

At my first auction I carefully checked the rules. One rule in particular stipulated that a local tribal bidder was allowed a concession of 7.5 %. This means that if he made a bid within 7.5 % less than the highest ‘non-tribal’ bid, then the tribal bidder would be awarded the timber lot. Still sore from my chase, I thought this rule was crazy. Tribal people were cutting all the trees and then they were getting the lots at a discount!  Wouldn’t this rule only encourage them to cut down more trees?

Seized wood stacked at a forest beat office in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya awaiting auction. Photo credit: R. Singh Gill

I was ready to conduct my first auction.

Nearly every lot was bought by one particular tribal bidder. I looked at him closely – he seemed an unlikely businessman. He was dressed in crumpled shorts and a button-less shirt closed in the front with a safety pin. I calculated the money he was required to deposit for all the lots he had purchased, and it was a fancy sum. When the last lot was settled, he rose from his seat and left the room. I waited with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.

The man returned in a few minutes with a gunny bag in his hands. He swung the bag menacingly over my table in the way Dennis Lillee would have bowled to Desmond Haynes. Holding it up, he opened the bag and several thick wads of banknotes dropped onto the table. While the accountant nonchalantly counted the money, I stared speechlessly at the man in front of me. How could a person unable to purchase a decent shirt have enough money to buy a load of confiscated timber lots at auction? What sort of a place was this?

“He has done it again, sir.” said the accountant after counting the money. “Every lot is his. Sometimes he does not even bother to change the proxy”.

“What do you mean by that?” I exclaimed.

The accountant was referring to the wealthy non-tribal trader whose hospitality I had enjoyed. Without appearing at the scene of auction, using the poor tribal bidder as a front man, he had purchased nearly every lot. The government’s ‘7.5 % concession’ rule designed to help local tribal communities had been hijacked in full view of the government’s officers.

The accountant explained why the trader had to do this. “They sell the woods in big markets like Delhi and Mumbai. If they cut down a tree and run with it, the police will catch them on the way. So they leave the logs for us to seize and buy them in auctions. Now they have the legal right (and documentation) to carry the logs to any place in the country.”

I had presided over a charade.

It was the suave traders, not the gauche tribesmen, who were gaining from the destruction of forests in the north-east. The phony bidder who had stood in the auction would only get a few pennies – not enough even to buy him a new shirt.

The problem with forest conservation in India is that those with a symbiotic relationship with forests matter the least. A tribal family only has modest needs for a home and hoe. The drivers of destruction are far away from the forests. They create such incentives that any ploy to steal from the forests can be funded to succeed. I came to realise that it is not ‘shifting cultivation’ that is destroying the forests in India’s north-east, but the economic development in other places fuelling an inexhaustible demand for wood.  The government, for all its claims to the contrary, is an institution of the elite. It will allow traders to buy wood in stage-managed auctions – and blame the loss of forests on poor, uneducated farmers.

Ranjit Singh Gill
Joint Director, Forest Survey of India
Kaulagarh Road, Dehradun – 248195
Uttarakhand, India

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21 responses

1 11 2013
A.J.T.Johnsingh

Exceedingly well-written story and honestly told. Problems like this are seen every where in our beloved country and the question is how to solve them.

28 10 2013
Bittu Sahgal

Ranjit do send me a mail? bittu@sanctuaryasia.com. We have solutions, and the roadblocks are not always the high and mighty that nature needs to and will eventually vanquish. The problem often lies closer, at the doorstep of urban players of all descriptions who mislead either the rich or the poor into believing that they can get richer / escape the poverty trap by consuming and diminishing nature itself. They postulate that protecting tigers, or turtles, or termites is an escapist / elitist fancy. Genuine forest communities know this to be untrue. The development brigade stands exposed, of course, but today, sadly, many of the human rights organisations unwittingly play into the hands of the development brigade the love to hate by supporting the right of innocent tribal communities to earn daily wages as conduits for forest biomass… including wood, tendu, minerals or merely the ‘right of passage’ for roads, railway lines and other infrastructures hammered into eco-fragile areas in the name of development. Had the Forest Rights Act-wallahs listened to us when we said: “Don’t compromise. Insist only on community rights, which has been the tribal way for centuries,” things might have been different. Today, you need merely look at before 2005 and after 2005 satellite images to understand how granting over a million ‘pattas’ for individual forests rights in the heart of thickly forested areas has ended up fueling deforestation and climate change, while driving the poor even deeper into poverty. The latest such calumny is the offer to tribal communities a percentage of the ill-gotten gains from coal mining in tiger forests. Amen!

28 10 2013
Mohit Sahu

Dear Bittu,
It is very true that the innocent tribal folk are being used as tools to fulfill the greed of traders. Things get worse when it comes to the tribesmen. These
people fall an easy prey, for a meager sum, when it comes to cutting trees or poaching.
Mohit Sahu

27 10 2013
Payal Bal

Dear Ranjit,
What an excellently written piece! It sums up a complex problem involving multiple stakeholders in a simple and to-the-point story. Things that we take ages to realise or acknowledge is summed up here with such elegance and a smack-on-the-face!

You are so right. In the race to put the blame on others and shrugging off all responsibility of the ongoing destruction of the planet, we fail to realise that the people we blame are actually the ones with the least impact. They only take what they need. Whereas we all, with our microwaves and sofa-sets and a web-voice, are sucking the planet dry. We realise it. But we don’t acknowledge it because god forbid if we do, we just might have to give up a hot shower!

I really liked your writing. And hope to hear more from your experiences as a forest officer.

Regards,
Payal Bal

27 10 2013
Ganesh Saili

And so the loot by the elite carries on in almost every field… from precious natural resources to admission in fancy colleges.. Its not those guys carrying wood in cycles that are doing it.. it’s the guys from outside who take it away in trucks!!! Excellent bit of writing…

7 11 2012
Mohit Sahu

Dear Ranjit,
This happens at most of the forested areas.Many a time the locals are lured into poaching also.To conserve the ‘greens’it is necessary that good employment opportunities have to be created near the homes of locals.This may be done by developing well-planned and disciplined tourism.

1 11 2012
tcornelisse

Reblogged this on Conservation of Biodiversity and commented:
A wonderful post from ConservationBytes

30 10 2012
wiguna

The Ranjit history seem similar with Indonesian forest faced today. Even in protected areas, small farmers encroached the forest.

29 10 2012
Gauri Sankar Narzary

Thank you Mr. Gill for igniting a scores of debates among the readers. I do agree with the view of one of the reader, that the situation is not the same every where. Officers of your taste is very much essential. Out here in Assam (Indo-Bhutan boarder) the land grabbing with the intention of getting ownership as per The Tribal and Forest Dwellers Act seems grim. Funny think about is the base year of settlement in forests.

29 10 2012
nitika

Its a brave act on Mr. Ranjit’s part. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better! Kudos!

28 10 2012
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia

When a good forest officer, like Ranjit Singh Gill, speaks forest truths, everyone responds by clapping him heartily between the shoulder blades. But not everyone reads between the lines to hear what he is actually saying. The real message here is that rules and laws like the Forest Rights Act have been crafted with good intent, but the systemic failures that keep tribal and forest dwellers on poverty street, while enriching the powerful, are not being tackled at all. This is a Meghalaya story. In Assam’s Sonitpur the tragedy is even deepe, where in the name of the Forest Rights Act a whole slew of land claims (not just timber claims) were together with massive land grabs and tree felling. Thank you Ranjit for this simple story. One day the penny will drop and our planners might wake up. Hopefully before the last tree is felled.

28 10 2012
K.Kakati

Just one example of how the system often defeats the purpose, and how the tentacles of ‘development’ reach the farthest corners to obtain their nourishment. This is not just a simple tribal versus non-tribal narrative (there are ones among the tribals too who can play as good a game). I appreciate your candour. A complicated tale, simply told.

27 10 2012
Nimish Patel

A very honest and courageous article for anyone part of the governance structure. I very much agree with the Mr Gill, and from my own experience can confirm that same situation applies with wildlife poaching. The tribals, even the ones who may supply venison or pork, are not the cause of today’s problems but they are an easy target to point fingers.

27 10 2012
Krishna

Congratulations to Mr. Ranjit Singh Gill. We need more voices like him especially within the system to highlight the deeper issues around deforestation and ecological degradation. The Adivasi communities certainly depend on the forests and in many places the social structures and cultural connect with the forests has weakened resulting in unsustainable harvests,but even for this a major part of the blame lies with the way Forest governance was designed, historically and its manifestation in the contemporary context.

I also wish to acknowledge that it could get a little lonely for forest officers like Mr. Ranjit Singh, my full solidarity and support to him and other upright official, a change from within the system shall certainly strengthen change processes advocated from outside.

Krishna, Pune

27 10 2012
Farshid

Dear Ranjit: Your story was fascinating and I thank you for the work you do. The challenge, though, is how do we fix this issue? Do we stop selling/auctioning the trees? Stopping the auctions might help limit the practice of cutting down trees that are finally easily bought at an auction. However, this might result in fueling the growth of cut-and-run operations. Ideally it would be great if some kind of tribal cooperative is given the logs at a reasonable price, which then manages to sell them to the big-city consumers, thereby eliminating the middlemen. This is obviously no easy task, and will come with its own set of challenges. People like you are the best judges of what changes could be made to the system, and how best to implement those changes. You have your work cut out for you and I wish you all the best with improving the situation in the Garo hills.

26 10 2012
Ranjit Talwar

While I commend the author for this frank story, this may not be the truth everywhere. Just stand outside Similipal in the morning and see the quantity of wood being removed on modified cycles- hundreds and hundereds of them. This is being done entirely by tribals. The wood is sold in nearby towns. Venison and pork is also supplied to nearby traders. I for one do not subscribe to the theory that tribals are not to blame for our dwindling forests and wildlife.

26 10 2012
CJAB

I don’t think Ranjit S. Gill meant that tribal deforestation isn’t a problem; I think he wished to highlight the corruption and influence of outside demand in this particular instance (which is arguably worse than locally driven deforestation in this region).

26 10 2012
Ranjit Singh Gill

The livelihood needs of the tribal communities are a matter of serious concern. They will always depend on firewood because the government cannot arrange cooking gas for every home. The practical way to take this sort of pressure off forests is to raise plantations outside forests to supply firewood. My article is not about livelihood issues; it is about stealing of forest wealth by powerful lobbies by a heavily regulated system that fails at the point of delivery.

26 10 2012
nandini

Very well written article. Thank you for highlighting the multiple complexities from the people on ground to the invisible markets of big cities.

26 10 2012
Ashish Kothari

Dear Ranjit, congratulations for reaching an important conclusion, and speaking your heart out. People from within the system need to say these things much more.

Today’s economic policies, governance inequities, and consumerist greed of the rich are what is driving ecological loss. The Govt is busy dismantling even what little env. regulation we have through proposals such as the National Investment Board, and it has done little to genuinely transfer powers, capacities, and responsibilities to local communities, or to make decision-making more accountable and transparent.
Ashish

26 10 2012
Ushma

A voice to the truth we are all aware of.. the people living closest to the forest seldom have far-reaching effects on the forest when compared to the quantities required to fuel our cities and their lifestyles..

Thank you for sharing the story.

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