by Aatreyee Dhar / The Guardian
In the pitch dark, the volunteers walk for hours along roads surrounded by dense forest. They patrol in near silence, listening hard for the thump of a trunk hitting the ground, a cracked twig in the dirt. Hunting down timber smugglers is a dangerous undertaking.
In January, Shri Vipin Shyam, 34, came across a man chopping down a tree in the early morning. “He was about to take a swipe at me with his axe until other members caught up to him,” says Vipin, a carpenter and former logger himself who has now become one of the volunteers protecting Assam’s forests.
Vipin and 21 residents from around Chalapothar Shyamgaon, in Charaideo district, are members of a forest protection group created in 2018 to preserve the 680-hectare (1,680-acre) reserve and help the understaffed forestry department.
From 9pm to 1am, four days a week, they patrol the forest, splitting routes into various areas to hunt the timber smugglers. They are unpaid and have no equipment, not even a raincoat.
Deforestation is at an all-time high in the north-east Indian state, particularly in the protected lowland tropical rainforests regulated by the Indian government. According to the forest-mapping platform Global Forest Watch, Assam lost 184 sq km (71 sq miles) of old-growth forest, equivalent to 8.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, in 2021.
The Chala reserve forest in Charaideo district faced a similar fate, with too few rangers to protect it. “There should have been at least 10 forest guards and four camps in different ranges, considering the area of the forest. Instead, we are left with two permanent staffers only,” says Manoj Gogoi, an officer of the reserve.
The forest department gave identity cards to the volunteers, who work to preserve the many species thriving in the forest. There are at least 1,000 types of trees, 70 orchid species and animals such as black panther, leopard, barking deer and rare butterflies and birds.
The Tai Khamyang people of Chalapathar Shyamgoan – an ethnic minority of about 5,000 in Assam – have relied on the forest for food, medicine and building materials since they migrated to Assam from China in the 12th century.
Over the past decade, those who went foraging deep in the forests noticed that the trees used to makes dye for women’s clothes and the robes of Buddhist monks were disappearing. Salu Shyam, a woman in her 80s, remembers how she would cut and roll up leaves of indigo and soak them in vats until the leaves turned soft. Then she would add musk mallow to the black water and add the cloth to soak, before hanging it to dry.
“That was eight or nine years back, when indigo and other ingredients were aplenty in the forest. Now, everything is bought at the market,” she says.
For monks, the Rangoon creeper vine, when mixed with the pith of a jackfruit root, once provided the saffron dye for their robes. Now it can no longer be found. Gnetum – a woody climbing vine – has leaves and fruits that are a favourite among the community, but is also becoming scarcer.
“Their disappearance sparked the conservation movement in the community,” says Manas Shyam, who started the Chala Village Sanctuary Conservation Society in 2018 with Pyoseng Chowlu to stop locals felling the endemic trees.
Within a month, 10 villages in the area had joined the campaign to protect their forest. “When the locals were mobilised to protect the forests, loggers couldn’t keep their activity clandestine, and they found themselves getting caught,” says Pyoseng. He blames corrupt officials for the unabated illegal logging. “Earlier, the loggers were able to make inroads into the reserve because of the collusion from officials in the forest department. Everyone was looking to earn easy money.”
There are concessions for gathering firewood for the communities. Manas Shyam says villagers collect dead wood or branches. Pyoseng, a teacher, says only commerical-scale logging, rather than foraging, destroys diversity.
Vipin now believes chopping down trees is akin to killing his own children. “Pyoseng made me realise how logging would mean losing the air we breathe in our villages. I gave up cutting hardwood trees despite pocketing big cash,” he says.
The communities have also restored about 30 hectares of denuded forest and plan to grow endemic trees in an abandoned oil-drilling project. “We have planted over 15,000 saplings given by the forest department,” says Pyoseng. “A 2.5 hectare biodiversity park has been established to plant an assortment of orchids and indigenous species for building environmental awareness among the future generations.”
Less than 1km from the biodiversity park, in a patch of sparse cleared jungle, Kesab Shyam digs a hole with a bamboo spike, gently planting an ajar sapling and stamping the soil in with his sandals. Two years ago, the forest department allowed Kesab to continue farming here if he agreed to grow the saplings.
As a traditional healer, Kesab’s craft depends on sourcing medicinal herbs to cure common ailments. “Ever since the conservation began, some timber-yielding plants such as ajar and burflower-tree have been brought back from near extinction,” he says proudly.