When Timber Smugglers Turn to Tourism

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If good sense had not prevailed upon the timber smugglers of Central Kashmir’s Budgam district in the Pirpanchal forest range of Himalayas, they would have stripped their forest bare of vegetation.

It was in 2010 when the timber smugglers of Sitharan and adjoining areas in Budgam started realising that their two-decade war against nature in the form of timber smuggling was not the lasting solution to the pathetic lack of livelihood avenues in their area.  

“All of us are extremely regretful about the way we cut our green gold and sold it off against pea-nuts,” Javid Ahmad, who claimed to have cut more than 100 trees alone, told me  as he and his fellow villagers poured scorn over what they used to pursue in the past as a means of livelihood. 

“Those were the days of ignorance. Today, if we see someone cutting a tree, we will slit his throat.” According to Javid,a piece of log measuring around three cubic feet used to be sold off against a paltry Rs 300. 

 Our forests, Javid and other former timber smugglers said, have witnessed felling of over half a million full-grown trees from 1990 to 2010. Mohammad Ramzan, who is in his 60s, said that the areas where hardly a tree has remained now, used to be dense forests two decades before. 

“Everything was alright before the armed conflict started in 1989 in Kashmir. Now, look at those denuded forests of Krala Sangri, Ramunhar, Pareezapan, Zam Pathar, Baerbal Damdam,” Ramzan said. 

“I remember, everyday timber was loaded upon over a 1000 horses for carrying it to saw mills. Even the army officers would take their own share of the loot when smugglers would come in contact with them.”   

So what caused the turnaround? “The idea of selling the charms of our beautiful surroundings to tourists moulded us into conservationists.  Besides, we had become notorious! People in the plains would treat us contemptuously,” Ahmad said. 

Bourgeoning criminal casesagainst the smugglers following the lawlessness of 1990s and early 2000s at the peak of armed conflict in Kashmir also contributed in changing the mind-set as forest authorities and police weregradually establishing their writ in this area, which locals said, was best known as Chotta (little) Afghanistan where forest officials and police dreaded to tread duringthe years of surging conflict in Kashmir. 

Thanks to the revival of tourism after two-decades of simmering unrest in Kashmir, the reformed villagers saw a decent opportunity in the stunning 375-acre meadow, Tosamaidan, which overlooks their equally beautiful villages. 

The meadow, villagers knew, hada huge tourism appeal given its potential of bewitching even the most uninterested. 

Hordes of tourists throng Kashmir’s Gulmarg and Sonamarg meadows all the time, and Tosamaidan is at least as beautiful.

But their only worry was the daily military exercises conducted by army in the meadow for training their personnel. These exercises were not only the source of deafening sounds, but had killed and maimed hundreds of villagers over the years as they would step over left-over unexploded ammunition.  

Fortuitously for these villagers, the end of lease-period for using the meadow for arms training was just round the corner which gave much hope to them.  The meadow was leased to the army by the state government in 1964 for carrying out military exercises for 50 years which were coming to an end in 2014. 

The villagers knew they had a chance. They would need to lobby the government not to renew the lease after 2014.

Their lobbying expanded into a large campaign towards the end of 2013. Environmentalists and civil rights groups joined them. Using the powerful Right to Information law, activists were able to request the authorities about the details of deaths and disabilities in the area surrounding Tosamaidan, helping to spur action.

After months of sustained campaign, their determination of not succumbing to the lure of earning money through evil means and their battle for freeing their meadow came to a logical conclusion.  The government gave in and denied the extension of lease to the army before asking it to clear entire area of any unexploded left-over shells. And, in May this year, Tosamaidan was officially thrown open for tourists bychief minister Mehbooba Mufti. 

“Now our lives will change,” said Firdous Sheikh, a youth in Sitaharan. “Until now people had no idea about the beauty of Tosamaidan.  Other meadows of Kashmir like Gulmarg and Sonamarg are no comparison to our Tosamaidan. 

Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a prominent Kashmiri poet, satirist and civil rights activist, who, the villagers said was a great support to them all through the campaign, said that the use of such a beautiful place for artillery exercises had not only deprived the villagers of Budgam of decent incomes through tourism, but had also compelled most of them to resort to timber smuggling.  

“It is a tragedy that all our economic resources have come under the influence of army or paramilitary forces. But, freeing Tosamaidan of ammunition is the best example of letting people cashing onnaturally existing economic opportunities which Kashmir is bestowed with,” Zareef said.

 

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