In early February, Kerala’s forest department officials raided a timber mill at Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district and seized rosewood worth Rs 60 Lakh (Rs 6 million). The material was being transported illegally from the environmentally fragile Muttil South village in the northern hill district of Wayanad. According to reports, the trees were cut from a private plantation and transported for about 251 kilometres by showing a controversial government order that was in fact revoked on January 30 — twelve days before the incident. The order issued in March last year, permitted patta (private) landowners to chop down all reserved trees, except sandalwood trees, on private lands.
Two days after the seizure in Perumbavoor, officials seized two truckloads of teak from Pulakkod near Chelakkara in Thrissur district on the same grounds, citing the government order, which, at the time, was not in force. In another incident in Marayoor in Idukki, forest officials found the same government order being used as a cover to cut and transport even sandalwood trees from private lands. However, no order facilitating the felling of sandalwood trees was issued so far in any part of the state. Also in February, Joseph Mathew, a district government pleader in Wayanad, disrupted a private individual’s attempts to cut and transport 12 giant rosewood trees from agricultural land to which title deeds were awarded only in 1970.
Across Kerala, trees grown on private lands have been cut and removed for commercial use over the past year due to the controversial order, which is still being used as a cover by the powerful timber mafia.
According to MI Varghese, a Thrissur-based conservationist and a retired Indian Forest Service officer, a section of revenue and forest officials are conspiring with the timber mafia. They even used the lockdown following the Covid-19 pandemic as an additional cover to cut and transport valuable trees from private lands, he alleged. According to his estimates, timber worth atleast Rs 50 Crore (Rs 500 million) has been felled and removed in the last one year, using the confusion over the issuing and cancelling of the government order on cutting trees, he said. Other than Idukki and Wayanad, districts such as Thrissur, Ernakulam, Palakkad, Malappuram, and Pathanamthitta have witnessed the felling of trees during this one year period.
N Badusha, president of the environmental organisation Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi, said the trouble began on March 20 last year when the state’s revenue department decided to amend Kerala Forest (Prohibition of Felling of Trees Standing on Land Temporarily or Permanently Assigned) Rules, 1995. Revenue Secretary M Jayathilak had issued an order permitting patta (private) landowners to chop down reserved trees, except sandalwood trees, in private lands.
The government order, when issued in March last year, was criticised by conservationists and environment activists who claimed that the order’s modification was a covert attempt to cut and remove around 50 lakh (five million) trees, including many endangered species, in Kerala. Most of the assigned landowners in Kerala are farmers, and the government had claimed that it was an attempt to empower farmers, who have been accumulating debts and losses due to climate change impacts and crashing prices of crop yields.
The Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non-Forest Areas Act, 2005 had identified 28 species of trees as ‘endangered’. In 2007, the act was amended by removing 19 species from the list while sandalwood, teak, rosewood, Irul (Burma Ironwood), Thempaavu (Terminalia elliptica), Kampakam (Hopea ponga), Chadachi (Grewia tiliifolia), Chandana Vembu (Chukrasia tabularis), and Vellakil (white cedar) remained on as reserved trees. The amendment in the Kerala Forest Rules 1995, last year, also made this Act meaningless and facilitated large-scale indiscriminate felling of trees from private properties.
In the face of extreme criticism, the same revenue secretary had issued a new order on January 30 this year stating clearly that the earlier order was cancelled as civil cases related to it were going on in the High Court, and the earlier order had created widespread confusion on the status of trees.
Now, as the order stands cancelled, all the 19 species that were allowed to be cut under the amendment, are back to being reserved trees, with curbs on their cutting and transportation.
“The government might have learned a lesson, but the timber mafia is still using the old order to implement its plan. A section of officials plays second fiddle to them by allowing the cutting and transportation of all the reserved trees. Wayanad was severely affected by this trend,” said Badusha.
In his earlier order issued in March last year, revenue secretary Jayathilak even went to the extent of stating that stern disciplinary action would be taken against officials who prevented farmers from felling and transporting any tree grown by them on land with title deeds starting with the year 1964. That order stated that permission was not required to fell and sell any tree except sandalwood, which grows on such land. As per that order, the tree ownership in such land would be entrusted with the title deed holder.
Thomas Lawrence, a Thiruvananthapuram-based conservationist, said that “it’s a great respite for environmentalists across the state now that the order has been withdrawn”.
“The old order had created large-scale confusion over the permission to cut trees and the confusion is still prevailing mainly in the hill districts. If that order was not revoked, all species of trees across the state would have been lost and many rare species would have been wiped out in the Western Ghats areas. Even now, there are no restrictions on felling 28 species of trees grown by farmers in their legally owned lands. Now the permission is required only in the case of 19 scheduled trees,” he said.
However, a section of farmer leaders is not happy with the revoking of the order. Sebastian Kochupurackal, the general convener of Idukki-based High Range Samrakshana Samithy, has warned that large scale agitations would be initiated against the new order, which according to him is anti-farmer. “It is a matter of farmers’ rights. People who grow trees on their own are not permitted to cut them. It is a travesty of justice,” he said.
According to Idukki-based environmental activist KT Chacko, at least one-fourth of Kerala’s geographical area must have been affected largely if the 2020 order was not revoked. There were chances of the timber mafia felling over 50 lakh (five million) trees. Many rare trees can be found now only in patta lands, he said.
“The forest department used to file cases even against people who pluck leaves from forests to use as fodder for domestic animals. Now the whole government is facilitating cutting and illegal transportation of even rare species trees,” he said. According to state forest officials, Kerala has over 13,000 spots that are vulnerable to floods and landslides.
“Cutting trees indiscriminately would affect the balance of the local environment. Climate change and devastating annual rains have become the new reality of Kerala now. Land use patterns also have been changed. So cutting and removal of protected trees must not be allowed under any circumstances,” says Thrissur-based environmental activist Manoj Karingamadathil.
According to Lawrence, only by ensuring the involvement of farmers in conservation activities the trees must be protected. “They must be properly compensated for each identified tree in the compound,” he said.
Experts suggest evolving loan facilities by local cooperative banks by telling farmers to pledge their valuable trees as assets. Such efforts would help the farmers to cooperate with conservation.