‘Ghost lumberjacks’ take advantage of proper roads and modern technology to facilitate their modus operandi to smuggle timber
In an era of climate change and drying water sources rampant illegal logging at an industrial scale in Paro is fast depriving the Dzongkhag of its precious forest wealth as mainly young pine is felled and taken away under the cover of darkness.
The Crime Scene
The Bhutanese found hundreds of stumps of illegally felled trees dotting the forests, especially along the five kilometer road to Sanchoekor Buddhist monastery and Institute in Lamgong Gewog. While some are fresh remains of tree trunks, many have aged and dried. Except for the stumps and a few twigs scattered here and there, the lumberjacks haven’t left a single chunk of wood at the scene.
A reliable source residing at a settlement close to the crime scenes describing the modus operandi used by the illegal loggers said, “loud noises of chainsaws, crash of trees falling, pick- up trucks, power tillers and men conversing can be heard from a distance.”
The commotion he said starts after dark and lasts through out the wee hours till early morning before dawn. “When we go and check out during the day, we see nothing but remains of trees felled. We don’t know who they are and where they come from,” he said.
Authorities and villagers claimed to have no idea of who does it, where they sell it and for what amount of money.
Dzongkhag statistics shows Lamgong Gewog has a total area of 48.8 square kilometer of which about 9,985 acres is covered by pristine forest that is fast depleting.
The Bhutanese found that the terrain of the harvest areas varied in slope, altitude, and ground conditions. Most of the incident site was on 45 degrees to 80 degrees slope and more than 2,500 feet in altitude. The forest composition is mixed hardwood and conifer. The felled trees according to the Gup are mostly pine and most of the trees are approximately 30 to 50 feet in height with a stump diameter of about 16 to 30 inches.
Lamgong gewog lies in western Paro and shares its boundary with Dopshari and Wangchang Gewogs in the east, Tsento Gewog in the north and Lungnyi gewog in the south. Lamgong also shares the Dzongkhag boundary with Haa Dzongkhag in the West.
A reliable source in the local government said one man was recently caught by officials while smuggling illegal timber along the Sangchoekhor monastery road.
Local government and locals are helpless
Lamgong Gup Phub Tshering said it had been decided in the Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogchung that, in his Gewog, permits to fell trees in areas affecting water source or farm roads shall not be approved owing to possibility of landslides.
The Tshogpa of the area Gyembo Dorji said “So many trees along the way are disappearing and a villager in the area has complained about it to me but there is no way for me to go and stand guard at the forest.”
The Tshogpa is one of the many villagers who said “miscreants come with different vehicles, fell and scoot off and we don’t have any idea about where they come from and who they are.”
“There are no signs of the thieves during the day but the miscreants come at night, use chainsaws, fell the trees and just disappear,” he added.
The Tshogpa said forest officials come once in a while and they only take action if they catch people red handed.
“We haven’t approved a single tree in that area. So, this is totally illegal. I wouldn’t sign at all if people came for clearance to fell trees in that area,” the Gup said.
He said that there has been illegal felling around Dagophu and Ngobaphu village both under Lango Gewog but he hadn’t heard of the practices along the road to the monastery.
The Gup also said “It’s easy for authorities to investigate this matter. They just need to inquire with the home builders on where they get the wood from.”
He said the Gewog office can do that but Gups and Tshogpas he said aren’t authorized to do it nor do they have the power.
“However, for instance if one man is caught and fined Nu 0.1 million today, he tries to cover it by making Nu 0.2 million tomorrow from the same kind of business,” the Gup said.
“The terrain is good and now with easy access to roads, everybody finds it easy to smuggle timber,” said Lamgong Gup Phub Tshering.
The Tshogpa also said “the road has been made accessible to all kinds of vehicle but there aren’t many commuters. So it’s easy for the thieves. Our villagers will not and cannot be the culprits as they can be caught easily.”
He said “It looks impossible for the Gewog to guard or put a stop to the illegal practices. It may best be left to the forest officials.”
“There isn’t a gate or check post at the entrance or exit of the road, so once the miscreants are done with the felling we don’t know where they take it. Whether they sell it to other Gewogs or anywhere,” the Tshogpa said.
“I heard of people who pretend to be visiting the monastery and fell the trees while returning at dusk and take the wood in their vehicle. We don’t know if it’s for sale or construction or firewood.”
Officiating chief forest officer (CFO) Tashi Norbu Waiba said one reason for the rampant illegal business is because of the abundance of timber in Paro with easy road access for transportation. “There are farm roads, highways and private roads plus an easy market,” he said.
A Dzongkhag wide problem
More than 60 percent of the total Dzongkhag area is covered by forest but the Dzongkhag continues to be one hotbed of illegal timber business.
Recently, in November, 2012 Paro forestry officials had confiscated some 800 cft of illegally felled timber and also caught some six people trying to transport timber illegally. Officials during the same time impounded a DCM loaded with the timber headed to Thimphu.
The forest office auctions the confiscated illegal timber at government rates while the miscreants are levied penalty.
Lack of Resources
Paro range officer Kencho Wangdi said there is manpower shortage and lack of proper transportation facility at the forest office. “Because of fewer resources, we have problem even to get to the site to keep records of illegally fell timber and count of tree stumps,” he said.
Sokshing and Tsamdro Rights
The Lamgong Gewog Tshogpa Gyembo Dorji said after the Land Act 2007 mandated all Sokshings and Tsamdro to be under government ownership, farmers hands were tied and they could no longer guard the forest.
He said, “It’s true that such practices grew in the last two years. There are bigger trees in the area that has been under the care and thram (ownership) of the villagers in the past as sokshing, villagers are now complaining about the thefts of these trees.” “The Sokshing area is now under the government’s thram, so villagers in the area cannot raise voice against villagers from outside who come into the area to fell trees legally or illegally except to report it to the authorities.”
“When you say trees are being fell or stolen, it’s because there isn’t anyone to guard them or take care of them,” he said.
However, the officiating chief forest officer (CFO) Tashi Norbu Waiba said the department has always encouraged community forests (CF) in the Dzongkhag. “Once the CF is handed over to the villagers, they are responsible for all the stones, trees, sand or any natural resources in that area. We do not interfere,” he said. With the handing over of Jagey Menchu CF last November, there are now 20 approved community forests in Paro.
The CF beneficiaries are expected to be more than alert on illegal extractions for timber, firewood, post and poles and fencing materials by road users as most CF falls along the highway.
Hiding the problem?
Although there are reports of confiscated equipments and timber by the forest office worth millions in just the last few years, the Paro range officer declined to provide any information on confiscated timber, penalized miscreants and other statistics. He cited directives from his superiors. However, emails, phone calls and text messages proved futile in obtaining any response from the chief forest officer Sithar Dorji.
Director, department of forest and park services, Chencho Norbu said there are plans in the pipeline to curb the prolonged illegal timber business. “We will soon start seizing not just the timber but also the vehicles and equipments for good,” he said.
Taking serious cognizance of the increasing malpractice, the range office has started incentive plans for informers. Whistleblowers or informers are rewarded with cash worth 25 percent of the total confiscated product.
Currently, as per department of forest and park service’s rates, the maximum price for logs in Paro is Nu 138.58 per cft and Nu 291.04 for sawn timber. The sale price for special class sawn timber (conifer) is Nu 258.26 per cft.
“Forest and timber matters have been decentralized and is looked after by the forest office under the chief forest officer,” the Dzongda said. “Protecting forest is everyone’s responsibility and anyone who is aware of such illegal activities should call up their Gups or Gewog officials,” he added.
Although, both the Dzongkhag administration and the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) in Paro are ready to take action against such practices, there hasn’t been any complains made to them. Paro Dzongda Chencho Tshering and Paro Police officer in charge Penjore told The Bhutanese that their assistance was not sought by anyone as yet.
Bhutan produces about 8 million cft of timber a year of which the Paro office alone is reported to be receiving about 30 applications for timber every year. Statistics also show that only 65 percent of the country’s total area is under tree cover though Bhutan has 72.5 percent of forest coverage.
Among others, the demand is believed to have been triggered by construction boom, renovation of houses damaged by natural calamities and increasing number of settlements in Paro.
Minjur Dorji & Puran Gurung/ Thimphu