In February 2021, 102 rosewood trees in Wayanad’s Muttil South village, which are under the reserved category and worth Rs 10 crore in the market, were illegally cut down.

How illegal felling of centuries-old rosewood trees caused a political stir in Kerala
news Controversy Thursday, June 10, 2021 - 14:23

On February 9, the Kerala Forest Department seized 54 logs of rosewood worth Rs 60 lakh from a timber mill at Perumbavoor in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. As the forest officials investigated the case, they traced the origin of these logs to Muttil South village in Kerala’s Wayanad district. They found that more than 100 rosewood trees planted at 28 sites within Muttil South village were illegally axed. These centuries-old rosewood trees, classified as ‘reserved trees’, are on private properties reserved by the Kerala government.

At the time, some environmental activists had alerted the officials about the illegal logging by the timber mafia. The forest officials registered a case, named two accused and carried out the investigation for three months. However, the matter turned into a political controversy — or got the government’s attention — on June 8 when the Opposition raised the matter in the Kerala Assembly session. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) alleged that the state government allowed “politically influential and well-connected timber thieves” to illegally harvest the rosewood trees.

The Opposition moved an adjournment motion seeking proper action in the case and alleged that a few government officials are involved in the scam. In response, Kerala Forest Minister AK Saseendran told the Assembly that 41 cases have been registered in the Muttil timber scam. He also said that the 102 rosewood trees were worth Rs 10 crore in the market. Speaker MB Rajesh found the government’s reply satisfactory and rejected UDF’s motion.

Meanwhile, the Wayanad police started the investigation in the rosewood felling case the same day, on June 8. According to The Hindu, the police have named 68 accused in the tree felling case, with two brothers, Roji Augustine and Anto Augustine, being the main accused. Roji Augustine, who is absconding, has been accused of transporting the timber without valid documents, for a timber company in Wayanad’s Vazhavatta.

The illegal logging

Decades ago, the Kerala government allotted a large swath of land in Wayanad’s Muttil south village to tribals and farmers for agriculture purpose. Some of the trees were under the ‘reserved’ category and so the owners were not allowed to cut them down.

Under the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non-Forest Areas Act, 2005, 28 species of trees were recognised as endangered. Later, 19 species of trees were removed from the list when the Act was amended in 2007. Sandalwood, teak, rosewood, Irul, Thempaavu, Kampakam, Chadachi, Chandana Vembu and Vellakil were retained as 'reserved' trees under the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non-Forest Areas (Amendment) Act, 2007. These laws are applicable to patta land assigned by the government.

However, this Act was further amended in 2017, wherein eight more species of trees were removed from the list. This caused confusion among the patta landowners as they did not know which trees they were allowed to cut. Then, on March 20, 2020, the Revenue Department issued an order, clarifying that patta (private) landowners can axe any trees, barring sandalwood trees. This furthered the ambiguity, and many misinterpreted the order. Media reports also surfaced that many timber merchants cut several reserved trees for commercial purpose and smuggled them to other parts of the country, during the lockdown period.

Criticising the order, environmentalists and experts said that there are around 50 lakh trees in patta lands, with many under the reserved category. The government finally cancelled the order in January 2021. The new order restored the reserved status of the nine species, including rosewood. Despite this, many persons continued to smuggle reserved trees, including sandalwood trees.

In early February, a group of individuals, according to reports, used this government order and misled the landowners in various parts of Muttil South into believing that they had permission from the Revenue department to cut down the rosewood trees. Upon learning about the illegal activity, Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi (WPSS), a non-governmental organisation that works towards environmental protection, sought government intervention and even wrote to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, to stop the illegal activities.

Meanwhile, according to Forest Minister AK Sassendran, Roji and Anto Augustine submitted 14 applications to the Meppady forest range officer in Wayanad (south) to transport the timber from Muttil in Wayanad. “The officer denied these applications. Later, they transported some wood to Perumbavoor in Ernakulam from where the officials seized it," the Minister said. Incidentally, the 54 pieces of rosewood logs (worth Rs 60 lakh) that the forest officials seized in Ernakulam were brought from Wayanad in two trucks. The remaining logs are still in Muttil South as the Meppady officer blocked the accused’s attempt to transport them as they fell under the reserved category.

On February 19, District Collector Adeela Abdulla suspended a village officer in connection with the case. In the last week of February, the forest officials registered a case against the Augustine brothers but were not arrested. There has been no major headway in the case for the last three months.

The Muttil timber scam

Speaking to TNM, N Badusha, the president of Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi (WPSS), alleged that although the 2020 order was cancelled (in January 2021), the accused Roji and Anto cut down the trees in February, with the help of some officials from the revenue and forest department. “The accused misled the owners of the land by showing the March 2020 order, and assuring that they were felling the trees legally. The accused even paid them some amount. If the timbers cost Rs 20 lakh, they would pay Rs 20,000 to the landowners,” he alleged.

While presenting the adjournment motion in the Assembly on June 8, Congress MLA PT Thomas said, "When some tribals in the locality denied cutting trees, these accused convinced them that 60% revenue from the wood will go towards the government, 20% to the landowners, 10% to the labourers and 10% to the accused. So it should be investigated to whose pocket did that 60% go to."

In February 2021, the owner of the mill in Ernakulam’s Perumabvoor wrote an email to the Forest Department headquarters after he found irregularity in the timber documents, and it was following this that the forest officials reached the timber mill, alleged the MLA. "How did the wood reach Ernakulam from Wayanad despite the police watch? How many check-posts closed their eyes for these timber poachers? The person who took the contract to cut trees has already revealed that higher officials are involved in the case," said PT Chacko MLA.

The MLA alleged that the Forest Minister has connections with the accused. Minister Saseendran agreed that some officials in the Forest Department are involved in the case. "There were allegations that TN Sajan, the forest conservation officer of Kozhikode, had sided with the accused. The Forest Department has received a complaint on this. I have directed the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest to submit a report on this allegation. After receiving the report, if necessary, other independent agency will also investigate, and will take the appropriate action," Minister said.

Badusha added that cases were taken against many landowners, who are farmers and tribals. "They were manipulated, deceived and they had no clue about the illegal trade. Now, they will have to pay a huge fine if the case proceeds," he said.

Meanwhile, Anto Agustine had approached the Kerala High Court, seeking to stay the investigation in the case. The counsel for the accused said that trees, which were cut, were from patta land and not the tract that falls under the Forest Department. The counsel for the Forest Department said the act was illegal. On June 9, the High Court dismissed the plea. 

 
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