According to the environmentalist, the permission to chop down eight species of trees on assigned patta lands will result in the loss of around 50 lakhs of trees.

Kerala govts order to cut reserved trees on private land faces harsh criticism
news Environment Wednesday, April 29, 2020 - 13:09

In March 2020, the Kerala Revenue Principal Secretary issued an order, clarifying that all reserved trees, except the sandalwood trees, are allowed to be chopped down by the owners of patta (private) land. This government order (GO) sparked massive criticism from environmentalists, as they claimed that around 50 lakh trees, including many endangered species, would be lost in the process. Many among the assigned land owners are into farming.

Under the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non-Forest Areas Act, 2005, 28 species of trees were recognised as ‘endangered’. Later, 19 species were removed from the list when the Act was amended in 2007. Hence, 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.

The law was applicable to lands assigned by the government, or the patta land. These were government revenue lands given to people before the 1950s and before the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963. This meant that owners of the assigned Patta land could not cut these nine types of trees.

This act was further amended in 2017 in which eight more species of trees were removed from the list. However, according to some environmentalists, there was ambiguity in the act and the assigned patta land owners did not know if they could fell these trees. In the March 2020 order, Dr V Venu, Principal Secretary, clarified that except the sandalwood, any tree - whether planted by the owner or already existing on the land - could be cut.

"An estimated 1/4th of the total geographical land area of Kerala will be impacted by this tree felling order if other land types like Jamma (hereditary) are included. This would mean 10 lakh hectares of land area, which would have these eight species of trees, would be affected, and a minimum of 50 lakh 300-year-old trees will be felled," Meera Rajesh, an environmentalist and representative of the United Conservation Movement (UCM), said.

Environmentalist CS Dharmaraj uses Wayanad as an example. “In this forest region, there are trees only in patta lands, with a majority being in the assigned patta land. Others have cut many of the reserved trees and planted rubber trees,” he said.

"My brothers and I once owned a patta land and I remember officials taking action if a branch of a tree in the land was cut. Now, anybody who owns the assigned patta land, whether one acre or 20 acres, has complete rights on the trees,” he said.

Landslides, diseases, habitat loss

According to a study by the Geological Survey of India and Earth Science studies, 13,000 spots in Kerala are vulnerable to debris flow (masses of soil or rock flow are washed down mountains) and 17,000 spots are vulnerable to landslides in the state.

Citing the landslides in Wayanad district in 2018 and 2019, Dharmaraj said that for a district that is highly susceptible to landslides, cutting trees would only worsen the situation.

Read: Erratic rains, vanishing lands: Manmade climate change puts Wayanad in danger

"There are several indigenous trees that are centuries-old in these assigned patta lands, especially in coffee plantations. It should be preserved," he added, alleging strong lobbying behind the latest GO.

An officer with the forest department, who sought anonymity, alleged the possibility of a quarry mafia behind the decision. "Earlier, there were directions that no activities other than farming were allowed on such lands. Quarrying was totally banned. But by 2005, such regulations were removed. Now, this recent order finally helps the quarrying mafia. If these reserved trees are removed, then it does not pose any obstacles for them," he added.

According to the Kerala Assembly’s Environment Committee Report of 2019-2020, there are approved quarries functioning for a stretch of about 458 kilometres in the state, and there are also illegal quarries, which are 10 times more than the legal ones. Many of them are in the Western Ghats, the report said.

The forest official also said that for many years, there were lobbying to amend the rule. "Initially, it was 28 species, later, it was reduced to nine and now just one reserved tree species. A huge number of trees comes under these eight species in the assigned land. That can cause a disastrous impact on our environment. I have no idea why they take these extreme decisions," he added.

Read: Not just rains, allowing quarrying in eco-sensitive zones also to blame for Kerala landslides

Pointing to the recent report of the possibility of another flood in 2020, Meera added. “Various diseases like monkey fever and Ebola spread from animals and there is every possibility that they will spill the virus as a result of the loss of habitat. When so many trees are lost, the habitat of many animal species is lost.”

Read: Nipah infection in Kerala: Don’t blame the bats alone; improve public health

Considering farmers, too

Activists assert that farmers cannot be neglected while arguing for environmental protection. "We understand that farmers cannot do cultivation in the area where these trees exist. So we suggest that the government compensate them to protect the trees," Dharmaraj said.

"A few years ago, the government had allotted Rs 10 crore for carbon neutrality projects, for the restoration of ecology and climate change mitigation. But the amount was not effectively used," he alleged.

Dharmaraj even wrote a letter to DDMA, in which he said, "It is important that an incentivisation scheme is brought in for farmers to maintain these old trees. The funds under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act for afforestation and proposed Carbon Neutral fund for Wayanad could be leveraged to manage and maintain a landscape outside forest land to ensure the old trees are not chopped down for timber."

Meera pointed to the importance of providing loans by pledging the trees in private lands scheme, as suggested by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA). In 2018, KILA introduced a scheme where farmers can pledge these valuable trees in their land to nearby cooperative banks. These banks will approve 70% of the cost of the timber as loan. "Once this scheme is introduced extended, it will help farmers as well as prevent them from chopping these trees," she suggested.

Although the scheme was introduced in 2018, only the Meenangadi Panchayath of Wayanad implemented it, which was successful.

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