In the mountainous region, trees have been cut down as tourism ground to a halt and guards were unable to patrol under tight restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19
By Athar Parvaiz
SRINAGAR, India, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's coronavirus lockdown has paved the way for a rise in illegal logging and timber-smuggling in forest-rich Indian-administered Kashmir, with guards unable to patrol and local incomes plummeting, the region's forest officials said.
The damage to forests was particularly high during the first few weeks of the strict lockdown, which began on March 25 and has been eased since late May.
"There was a spike in incidents of timber-smuggling because of the lockdown, but it doesn't mean our staff completely failed to act," said Mohit Gera, principal chief conservator of forests, speaking by phone from his office in Jammu.
"In the first few weeks, timber smugglers took advantage as our staff could not reach far-flung areas and our workers have also been busy with helping the government in the fight against COVID," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Jammu and Kashmir has so far reported about 4,500 cases of COVID-19 infection and at least 50 deaths.
Forest department workers seized 4,342 cubic feet of timber from smugglers in the past two months, as well as confiscating 13 vehicles and 41 horses, and filing 103 police reports against 306 perpetrators, Gera added.
Those responsible included habitual timber-smugglers who take the wood to sell for construction and other private uses, as well as people who recently turned to felling trees because they lost their work during the pandemic, officials said.
On World Environment Day, June 5, the forest department launched a mobile app and toll-free number so that local people could report timber theft in real-time, Gera said.
In early April, Kashmir's Wildlife Department put out a circular asking people living near forests not to visit them, in a bid to avoid transmission of the novel coronavirus.
"We felt the need to issue the circular after we learned that a tiger was found COVID-19 positive in the United States," said Rashid Naqash, Kashmir's wildlife warden.
But the warning did not deter timber-smugglers, it seems.
Nazir Ahmad, president of the Kashmir forest employees' union, said more than 320 colleagues had been injured during the lockdown in attacks by smugglers using their hands or sticks.
"The forest guards and officers bear the brunt when it comes to protecting forests," Ahmad said by phone.
A forest official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said not only sawn timber had been smuggled from forests, but also small trees and the tops of trees.
Some people were taking them to sell as firewood to families for the winter, he added.
Gera said that with most people having no work during the COVID-19 lockdown, "a few of them get so desperate that they think of smuggling forest products".
The state forest services are in the process of regenerating forest areas such as Tosamaidan and Sitaharan in central Kashmir that were denuded by timber-smugglers when armed violence in the region was at its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Kashmir forest department says that, in the past five years, it has been successful in restoring and protecting the region's forests, which cover about 816,400 hectares, even achieving a small net increase in its forested area.
Experts, however, have queried the figures, saying they include horticultural areas with trees, as well as forests that fall outside the line of control, in the part of Kashmir claimed by Pakistan.
Scientists say forests are vital for curbing climate change as they suck planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while regulating the water cycle and helping prevent floods.
Kashmir's forest department had planted 73,000 trees just in the past few months, Gera said. "The region can't afford to lose more forest trees," he added.
Feroz Ahmad, a teacher at a government-run school in Lolab in northern Kashmir, said harming the region's forests was like "harming our existence".
He noted that people in the Himalayan region often cite a saying attributed to 16th-century saint Sheikhul Aalam that "food will last as long as forests last".
"Kashmir is called a paradise on Earth because of our forests and water bodies. And more importantly, our food supply is dependent on forests," Ahmad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a visit to the Lolab forest.
But that message may be lost on people who need to feed their families at a time when the COVID-19 outbreak has cut off their livelihoods.
Irfan Rasool, forest conservator for north Kashmir, said some daily wage labourers working in tourism or construction, who had lost their incomes in the past three months, may have taken to timber-smuggling "as a last resort".
His team had confiscated dozens of ponies normally used for tourist rides at mountain resorts that were discovered transporting timber instead, he said.
There are nearly 11,000 people who own ponies and work at Kashmir's resorts such as Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam, as well as 3,700 tourist guides and sledge drivers.
At the start of May, the local government said each worker would be given 1,000 rupees (about $13.20) per month for three months to make up for lost revenues.
But some in the tourism industry scoffed at the gesture.
Farhat Nayek, who runs a tour agency in Gulmarg, said in the summer season, workers would earn 1,500 rupees per day on average, bringing in at least 45,000 rupees a month.
"Every person has to feed about six family members. How can a person do so if he has just 1,000 rupees a month?" Nayek asked.
($1 = 75.8150 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Athar Parvaiz; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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