Logging off, for now

Published : Jan 05, 2002 00:00 IST

The curbs imposed by the Supreme Court on the felling of naturally grown trees and other forestry-related activities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, come at a critical juncture for moves to conserve biodiversity and protect the interests of the archipelago and its communities.

Forestry (in the Andaman islands) is a comparatively new department for utilising convict labour and is now the chief source of revenue in cash.

- Lt. Col. Richard C. Temple, Chief Commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, in the Census of India, 1901.

The cutting of naturally grown trees in any (on)going projects (in the Andaman and Nicobar islands)... except plantation wood is prohibited.

- The Supreme Court of India, order dated October 10, 2001.

THE Andaman and Nicobar Islands are clothed in some of the finest tropical evergreen forests in the world and are home to a large number of rare and endangered, even undocumented, species of flora and fauna. It is, however, the classical "missing the forests for the wood" syndrome that has driven developmental policies in the islands for over a century. The British first set up the Forest Department here in 1883. For a region so rich in forests, its major responsibility, expectedly, was timber extraction. This has continued unabated ever since, but now a change has been forced. The October 10, 2001 order of the Supreme Court marks this significant milestone in the history of these unique islands.

Forestry operations clearly inflicted widescale damage to the island's forests, and the biggest losers have been the indigenous communities that have lived and flourished there for thousands of years. Today, there are six indigenous communities that live in these Islands. The Nicobari and the Shompen, of Mongoloid origin, inhabit the Nicobar group of islands. Forestry operations in the Nicobars have been limited as commercial extraction of timber did not arrive in these islands. But the four tribal communities of Negrito origin that live in the forests of the Andaman group of islands have been the hardest hit by the forestry operations.

The Great Andamanese, who numbered more than 3,000 around the time the operations began, have been virtually wiped out and today just about 30 individuals survive on Strait island. The Onge of Little Andaman have suffered a fate that is only marginally better. Timber extraction started here in the 1970s. Although their population count has remained steady at around a hundred individuals since that time, the fabric of their life and society has been tattered. The Jarawas of South and Middle Andaman are better off still, because until recently they were extremely hostile to the outside world and defended their forests and way of life aggressively. However, this is beginning to change and it is feared that they too will go the way of the Great Andamanese and the Onge. The Sentinelese live on the isolated 100-sq km North Sentinel island. They remain violently hostile and therefore stand the best chance of surviving as an independent human community for some more time.

The Onge and the state of their forest home figured in the Supreme Court's order. Investigations in early 1998 had revealed serious violations of their rights and illegal extraction of timber from the forests of Little Andaman. Ironically, the agency responsible in this case was the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Plantation and Development Corporation, which had been extracting timber since 1977. The main forms of violation included the extraction of timber from within the boundary of the Onge tribal reserve, excessive removal of timber from the area where logging was legally permitted and continued logging in the absence of a working plan as required by the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, and an interim order of the Supreme Court dated December 12, 1996 in the Godavarman case (Frontline, May 7, 1999).

Based on these findings, three non-governmental organisations - the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh, the Port Blair-based Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) and the Mumbai-based Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) - filed a writ petition before the Calcutta High Court, Port Blair Circuit Bench seeking an end to all logging operations in Little Andaman.

Additional proof of the impact of the forestry operations had been put together by the petitioners. These came from various sources, some relating to Little Andaman in particular and others to the islands in general. For Little Andaman, this included a 1989 study on corals by the Andaman and Nicobar Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The study showed that the percentage of dead coral was directly related to the level of logging and soil erosion that was taking place on land. In the sea adjoining the main jetty and the timber depot of the island, the relative abundance of live coral was only about 11 per cent.

Other studies showed that endangered fauna like the saltwater crocodile and the endemic Andaman wild pig were being affected owing to logging. The Onge, who critically depend on the wild pig, had reported the same and also asked for the stoppage of logging activities on 'their' island. The most damning critique of forestry operations on the islands as a whole was contained in a 1983 report from the Department of Environment, Govern-ment of India. Authors S.C. Nair and Shanthi Nair had argued that the basic assumption underlying the Andaman Canopy Lifting Shelterwood System (which the Forest Department has been following as a scientific system of forestry) was wrong. This forestry system, they pointed out, was leading to a preponderance of deciduous elements in the evergreen system that would eventually destroy the whole island ecosystem.

The Island Development Authority (IDA) too, in its fifth meeting held in 1989 under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, resolved that logging had to be phased out over the next few years. As a matter of fact, sensitive officials in the Forest Department have argued all along that the forestry operations are not in the best interests of the islands. However, the Forest Department and the local administration continued with large-scale timber extraction. As far as the petition in the High Court was concerned, they did what government institutions are best at. They stonewalled it. All that was stated in the writ petition was denied. It was further argued before the Judges that as the petition had invoked an order from the Supreme Court the matter could only be argued there. The High Court agreed, and the petitioners were forced to approach the Supreme Court in 1999 through an intervention application filed as T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs The Union of India and others (Writ Petition 202 (Civil) of 1995).

For over two years nothing happened as far as the courts (both the High Court and the Supreme Court) were concerned. On the islands too things went back to normal after the initial shake-up after the hearings in the High Court. The matter finally came up for hearing on October 10 in the Supreme Court and in a significant order, a Bench comprising Justices B.N. Kirpal, Santosh Hegde and Ashok Bhan stayed the felling of naturally grown trees in the entire area of the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

THAT the timber extraction operations involves crores of rupees annually is common knowledge. There have also been allegations that many top forest officers and administrators have made a lot of money through illegal timber extraction and transport operations. Concrete proof of this was unearthed in February 2000, even as the issue of illegal logging was pending before the Supreme Court. The matter involved the issue of unnumbered transit passes for the transport of nearly 400 cubic metres of timber from Mayabundar in North Andaman to Chennai and even though Bishnu Pada Ray, Member of Parliament from the islands, wrote to the Chief Vigilance Commissioner demanding a probe, nothing has come of it yet. At a conservative estimate, the total consignment was worth over Rs.27 lakhs and it is being described as only the tip of the iceberg.

Significantly, the demand for timber from industries on the islands has been falling steadily over the last few years. A look at the figures show that while 47,000 cu m was legally logged in 1999-2000, the figure fell to 40,067 cu m in 2000-2001. Importantly, an increasingly large quantity of the timber was not being lifted by the industries that it was meant for. In 1999-2000, 25 per cent of the timber logged was not lifted, while in 2000-2001 nearly 42 per cent remained in the depots of the Forest Department. The fact that this reality was not taken into account while setting extraction targets for the following year is a clear indication that there are other forces at play.

Following the October 10 order, the matter came up for hearing again before a Bench comprising Justices B.N. Kirpal, K.G. Balakrishnan and Arijit Pasayat on November 23. In addition to the stay on felling of naturally grown trees, the Bench directed that, "no sawmill, plywood or veneer factory shall utilise any naturally grown trees without further orders from this court". The court appointed an expert commission under Professor Shekhar Singh of the New Delhi-based Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA). The commission was asked to look into the state of the forests and other related matters on the islands.

There has been some degree of resentment on the islands over the complete stoppage of forestry-related activities, particularly because of the implications on the livelihoods of those involved. Figures for 1997-98 show that there were 35 timber-based industries on the islands. These included three private plywood mills, two government saw mills, 19 private saw mills and 11 match/pencil and composite units. The three plywood mills employed an estimated 3,000 individuals and used a large chunk (nearly 65 per cent) of the timber that was cut on the islands. Over the last year or so, two of these big mills, employing an estimated 2,000 persons, shut down citing financial and administrative reasons. Other smaller units too have not been functional. The net result was that in 2000-2001 only 24,000 cu m of timber was picked up for use when the total quantity that had been cut was over 40,000 cu m.

The 1991 Census figures had put the total number of workers in the islands at about 91,000 individuals. Those involved in forestry (including activities such as planting, replanting and conservation work) was estimated at around 10 per cent of the islands' total workforce. Latest figures of the operational industries in the islands, their capacities, and people employed are reportedly being put together by the administration as demanded by the court.

At the same time, there is another large body of opinion that sees in these developments a new chapter for the islands and the islanders. That forestry could not have gone on forever is well known and the challenge now lies in finding creative and more sustainable solutions. There are a number of areas of work that are directly related to the forests and that have the potential to provide employment to a large number of people. This includes water and soil conservation activities, social forestry and regenerating degraded forest lands, agro-forestry and a better level of wildlife conservation and protection work. Fisheries have great potential, thanks to the fish-rich seas that surround the islands. An effort needs to be made towards sustained and sustainable utilisation of these resources.

The court order comes at a significant juncture in the context of the ongoing preparation of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Coordinated on the islands by the Andaman and Nicobar Island Environmental Team (ANET), the draft plan was released recently. It points out that the biggest issue confronting the islands today is the rapid population growth as a result of large-scale migration from mainland India. The present estimated population of the islands is 500,000. If one were to consider just the availability of drinking water there, it will become clear that the carrying capacity of the islands has been long exceeded.

Agricultural yields in the islands have fallen and evidence from other tropical forest regions of the world shows that these soils are not conducive to agricultural activities. A horticulture-based system might have some answers. Tourism on the islands is growing rapidly and is being seen as the next big revenue earner. However, the draft plan identifies tourism as a cause for concern, unless steps are taken to ensure that it is environment-friendly.

There are other issues also on the island. There is large-scale encroachment of the forests. The mangrove cover has fallen substantially over the last few decades and coral reefs have been impacted by land-based activities such as logging, agriculture and pesticide use. All this is critically linked to the precious biodiversity of these islands, on which the lives and livelihood of their people depend.

The biodiversity strategy and action plan (BSAP) has the potential to create a broad framework in which the future of the islands can be discussed, debated and planned. The exercise of drafting it allows for extensive multi-stake holder participation. This has not been exploited to its fullest potential, with the government departments in particular lagging behind. Perhaps the court order will now lead to some action here as well.

In many ways, the mandate of the BSAP for the islands and the mandate before the commission appointed by the court overlap neatly. There are many burning issues that have to be dealt with if the future of the islands is to be secured. Logging, though critical, is only one of them. The challenge now is to find a creative way forward.

In association with the Leadership in Environment and Development (LEAD) Programme

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