Wanton destruction of forest must stop to save the planet

Written by: Shubham Ghosh
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Like every year, June 5th this year too has been celebrated as the World Environment Day. Several organisations, NGOs, citizens' forums vowed to act as green volunteers and contribute in some way to stop the damaging treatment that is meted out relentlessly to our environment.

Cutting Tree

A noble gesture, no doubt, but just remembering the worth of the environment once a year is not going to set things right. Environment is an aspect that demands a comprehensive approach for its sustainability and a whole lot of socio-economic challenges need to be addressed to ensure a safe and healthy surrounding.

When the issue of sustainability of the environment comes up, one can not ignore the problem of forest conservation for trees are the mainstay of ecological equilibrium. Unfortunately, even as we raise slogans like 'Go Green' or 'Give the Forest Back' on days like June 5 every year, in effect, not much is being done to stop the rampant damage of the greenery around us. Sustenance of the forest is the call of the day, not for its but our own survival.

Depletion of the forest is a major problem world over today. Regions in Africa, China, Indo-china, Brazil, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, and several other parts of the world have been badly affected by the menace. There have been efforts to reclaim depleted forest land but yet the problem is bigger than the solution. Forest depletion is not an end problem in itself but can lead to several other key crisis like water scarcity, climate change, soil erosion and green-house effect.

Let's focus on the Indian case. India comprises a small fraction of the world's forest resources to cater to the needs of a sizeable population, both human and cattle, dependent on them. The scenario, in itself, demands an increase in area under the forest land but in reality, just the obverse is happening.

Factors like urbanization, industrialization, farming always threat to forest land and it is a common feature of any developing country. But the real cause behind the problem is mismanagement and lack of will in preserving forest area at the decision-making level.

The Indian government, from the very beginning, has maintained a strict control on forest even if it has failed to look after the sector satisfactorily.

The British had earlier exploited and destroyed the forest resources and after independence, the Indian government wore the mantle left by the colonial masters. In the name of conservation, the government maintained its hold on forest resources, doing little for its actual conservation apart from extracting confiscatory taxes from private individuals.

It did not formulate any mechanism for judging the valuable forest resources in monetary terms, the profit/loss equation associated with it and any standard procedure for using forest resources. It only aired caution that trees should not be cut. The result has been disastrous. Public resources have been wasted, valuable timber have been smuggled at will in lieu of bribery and sometimes by force and forest land has been alarmingly depleted.

A case in point is north Bengal. The region once boasts of over 40% of forest cover, which has been reduced to just 24% today. Immigration from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and setting up of army units owing to the region's geo-strategic importance and establishing tea gardens had already depleted the forest land. To that, frequent raids by timber mafia, who employ local forest villagers by promising good amount, and the ill-equipped and inadequate forest personnel have proved deadly for the local flora. The depletion has also rendered the local animals homeless and at shortage of fodder, hence increasing man-animal conflict in these parts.

A villager in the Buxa forest in north Bengal, who once worked with timber smugglers, said: "Those agents who work for the timber mafia, employ some youths either on contract or against a daily wage. They cut big trees with saws, chop off the branches cut them into pieces. They peel off the bark and roll the logs by pulling it with chains which are tied with an iron bolt drilled into the log. The logs are then carried off in trucks waiting outside the forest area. The agents then make the logs ready for sale." It is learnt that those who smuggle the logs out of the forest hardly get Rs 300 for each outing. But each cubic feet of the log of saal or teak wood is sold for nearly Rs 600 in the local market and even more in Bhutan and Bangladesh.

The Sunderbans, a crucial ecological region in southern Bengal and the adjacent parts of Bangladesh, has also been affected by reckless cutting of trees. This has caused soil erosion and damage to the mangrove forest, one of the mainstay of the ecological balance. Depletion of forest has left serious impacts in states in the North-east, Orissa, Karnataka, Punjab as well.

The more glaring reason for the forest depletion is boundless corruption. Since forest is a resource which can always prove to valuable even without any care, public institution officials look to exploit it and indulge in corrupt practices. Several industrial units clear forest areas for illegal mining of minerals or setting up plantations. Lack of labour, adequate security means and bribery paralyse the public departments from countering the menace.

The government, although admits that forest conservation is a crucial issue and environmental issues demand importance (the 1988 National Forest Policy Act for instance, had talked of lofty ideals) but in reality, the country's pressing socio-economic problems in terms of poverty, education, health, international debt and others force attention towards the environment issue to the backseat. There has been an increase in the national budget towards forest conservation and afforestation of late no doubt but yet, lack of prioritization sees funds being drained wastefully with no end being achieved.

But how can forest resource can be replenished if the government fails to do the task? One quarter is of the opinion that complete privatization of the forest resources could be a solution. Putting trees under private property rights would raise their value as economic commodities and not free exploitable resources. Making forest private commodities would also add value to forest products and the owners would make it a point to treasure the natural resources and protect them. The concept of private forests is already gaining ground in various parts of the country and they help in promoting tourism besides ensuring a healthy environment.

Preservation of trees is something which we, every citizen, should stress at every opportunity. They are vital for the survival of our planet and we must look after their well-being.

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