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ENVIRONMENT: Smugglers Axing Kashmir Forests

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, Jan 26 2011 (IPS) - During the summer of 2010 Kashmir saw one of the worst face-offs between pro-freedom Kashmiri youth and law enforcement agencies. Smugglers used the unrest surrounding these outbreaks to conceal their steady ramping up of the black market timber trade, at times with complicity of authorities.

A tree axed by smugglers in Kashmir. Credit: Athar Parvaiz

A tree axed by smugglers in Kashmir. Credit: Athar Parvaiz

“We are helpless, we lack both infrastructure and manpower,” says Kashmir’s Chief Conservator of Forests Manzoor Ahmad. “Each forest guard has to guard 10 square kilometres of forest without the help of any vehicle.”

Manzoor says that his department has started measures to curb smuggling. “We have liberalised the import of timber from outside Kashmir to ease pressure on local sources of timber. We don’t charge any tax for the imported timber upon its entry in Kashmir and allow its transportation within Kashmir without any transit documents,” he told IPS.

But private timber depot owners say that forest officials ask for bribes even for the transportation of imported timber. “They charge 25 rupees per cubic feet of timber,” said Ghulam Ahmad, a private depot owner in Srinagar.

One of the many hotbeds for timber-smugglers is the rugged terrain of Rafiabad in north Kashmir where smuggling of timber is made possible through the use of ponies. Felling of trees is so widespread here that the practice has started triggering landslides.

“Local smugglers, active in the upper belt, are exploited by the timber contractors who make them cut trees for a pittance while they themselves make huge money out of it,” says social activist Ashraf Khan, a local teacher.

“We don’t have any other means of income. We simply feed on the forest,” a timber smuggler who ferries the timber on his pony, told IPS on condition of anonymity. “I know it is not a respectable job, but when I look around I don’t find anything which can fetch me an income.”

Smugglers ignore the risks involved in operating in the forests of a conflict zone where they could be mistaken as militants by the Indian army. In 2005, Farooq Khan was killed, and last year Gull Kalis was killed in army ambushes in the region.

But in many cases timber smugglers enjoy the blessing of security forces and make 90 to 100 dollars a night thanks to agreements between politicians and head timber smugglers.

The construction boom and the lack of any initiative by the government to save forests have fuelled the illegal sale of forest wood in this territory which is in dispute between India and Pakistan.

The large-scale construction is not only feeding on forest wealth, but has also consumed thousands of hectares of agricultural land. According to official estimates, more than 9,000 hectares of agricultural land in Kashmir have been converted into residential and commercial areas over the past few years.

“The concept of horizontal expansion is proving quite disastrous as it, unlike the vertical expansion, consumes additional space and additional construction material including timber,” Nissar Ahmad, central forest conservator in Kashmir, told IPS. Nissar denied that corruption among forest officials was one of the reasons for timber smuggling.

Carin Fisher, a German citizen who has now applied for Indian citizenship, came to Kashmir a few years ago to start a project called “Rural Tourism” sponsored by the Indian tourism ministry, but she has decided to morph the project into a campaign for saving forests.

“To start with I chose Rafiabad area in north Kashmir for implementing my project. But when I went there, I was shocked to see the incredible destruction of forests,” Fisher told IPS.

“Then I thought I should do something to motivate the timber smugglers to give up this habit of axing the trees. So I named my project “Trekking for Trees” and managed to convince 50 smugglers to work as tourist guides and identified 20 houses for the tourists to stay,” said Fisher.

“In the meanwhile, we also built a trekking centre for giving tourist-guide training to the timber smugglers,” she said. “But we had to suspend the whole operation because I was not allowed to implement my project by a nexus of the vested interests.”

Fisher says that she is organising a similar project in Khag-Budgam and hopes to start it in April or May of 2011. “You can’t stop timber-smuggling by booking the smugglers under harsh laws. You have to go after the kingpins and at the same time you have to give community-based livelihoods to the poor people who actually do the axe-work,” Fisher told IPS.

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