‘Like killing my children’: Former loggers now defend Assam’s forests | Global Development
IIn pitch darkness, the volunteers walk for hours on roads surrounded by dense forest. They patrol in close silence, listening intently to the thump of a trunk hitting the ground, a twig cracking in the dirt. Tracking down timber smugglers is a dangerous business.
In January, 34-year-old Shri Vipin Shyam came across a man felling a tree in the early morning hours. “He was about to hit me with his ax until other members caught up to him,” said Vipin, a carpenter and former logger himself who became one of the volunteers protecting Assam’s forests.
Vipin and 21 locals from around Chalapothar Shyamgaon in Charaideo district are members of a forest protection group set up in 2018 to preserve the 680-hectare (1,680-acre) reserve and help the understaffed forest service .
From 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., four days a week, they patrol the forest, dividing the roads into different areas to chase away wood smugglers. They are unpaid and have no equipment, not even a raincoat.
Deforestation is at an all-time high in India’s northeastern state, especially in the lowland protected rainforests regulated by the Indian government. According to forest mapping platform Global Forest Watch, Assam lost 184 km2 (71 square miles) of old-growth forest, equivalent to 8.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, in 2021.
The Chala Reserve forest in Charaideo district suffered the same fate, with too few rangers to protect it. “There should have been at least 10 rangers and four camps in different ranges, considering the size of the forest. Instead, we are left with only two permanents,” explains Manoj Gogoi, an officer in the reserve.
The Forest Service has issued ID cards to volunteers, who work to preserve the many species that thrive in the forest. There are at least 1,000 types of trees, 70 species of orchids, and animals such as the black panther, leopard, barking deer, and rare butterflies and birds.
The Tai Khamyang people of Chalapathar Shyamgoan – an ethnic minority of about 5,000 people in Assam – have depended on the forest for food, medicine and building materials since they migrated to Assam from China in the 12th century.
Over the past decade, those who have gone deep into the forests for food have noticed that the trees used to dye the clothes of women and the robes of Buddhist monks are disappearing. Salu Shyam, an octogenarian, remembers how she cut and rolled indigo leaves and soaked them in vats until they softened. Then she would add musk mallow to the black water and add the fabric to soak, before hanging it to dry.
“That was eight or nine years ago, when indigo and other ingredients were abundant in the forest. Now everything is bought at the market,” she says.
For monks, the climbing vine of Rangoon, when mixed with the pith of a jackfruit root, once provided the saffron dye for their robes. Now it can no longer be found. Gnetum – a woody climbing vine – has leaves and fruits that are community favorites, but are also becoming scarce.
“Their disappearance sparked the conservation movement in the community,” says Manas Shyam, who founded the Chala Village Sanctuary Conservation Society in 2018 with Pyoseng Chowlu to prevent locals from cutting down endemic trees.
Within a month, 10 villages in the region had joined the campaign to protect their forest. “When the locals were mobilized to protect the forests, the loggers couldn’t keep their activity underground and they got caught,” says Pyoseng. He blames corrupt officials for the relentless illegal logging. “Previously, the loggers had been able to enter the reserve thanks to the collusion of the officials of the forest department. Everyone was looking to make easy money.
There are concessions to collect firewood for the communities. Manas Shyam says villagers collect dead wood or branches. Pyoseng, a teacher, says only commercial-scale logging, rather than foraging, destroys diversity.
Vipin now believes that cutting down trees is like killing his own children. “Pyoseng made me realize how much logging would mean losing the air we breathe in our villages. I gave up cutting hardwood trees despite the fact that I pocketed a lot of money,” he says.
The communities have also restored around 30 hectares of denuded forest and plan to grow endemic trees in an abandoned oil drilling project. “We planted more than 15,000 saplings donated by the forest department,” says Pyoseng. “A 2.5 hectare biodiversity park has been created to plant an assortment of orchids and native species to raise environmental awareness for future generations.”
Less than 1 km from the Biodiversity Park, in a patch of sparse, sparse jungle, Kesab Shyam digs a hole with a bamboo spike, delicately planting a sapling ajar and pricking the ground with his sandals. Two years ago, the Forest Department allowed Kesab to continue farming here if he agreed to grow the saplings.
As a traditional healer, Kesab’s profession depends on the supply of medicinal herbs to cure common ailments. “Since conservation began, some timber-producing plants such as ajar and burflower-tree have been brought back from near extinction,” he says proudly.
Sign up for a different perspective with our Global Dispatch newsletter – a roundup of our best stories from around the world, recommended reading and our team’s thoughts on key development and human rights issues, delivered in your inbox every two weeks: