World Rainforest Movement

India: Different plantation species, same problems

I recently had the opportunity of travelling to the Indian province of West Bengal and to visit the Dhoteria, Bagora and Mayung “Forest Villages” in the districts of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong.

To the outsider, the mountain area of the Outer Himalayas appears to be covered by dense forests, mostly composed of very large trees. However, local people know that these are not forests, but old and new plantations of mostly two species: the Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and Teak (Tectona grandis).

Those plantations where initiated during British colonial rule in India under the so-called “Taungya system”, first implemented by the British in Burma and later extended to other colonies. The apparently “technical” name of this system served to hide its huge social and environmental impacts. People were moved –through “voluntary” or forced mechanisms- to the areas to be planted and were settled in so-called Forest Villages. Their first task would be to cut down the native forest and to set fire to the non commercially valuable vegetation. The second task would be to plant the selected species, -initially teak and later Cryptomeria. After that, the foresters would “allow” villagers to sow their own crops between the rows of planted trees, which in fact resulted in free weeding of the plantation. Once the canopy closed and crops would no longer be able to grow for lack of sunshine, the Forest Village would simply be moved to a new area where exactly the same process would begin again.

The independence of India did not bring about changes in Forestry Department thinking and action, which mostly continued the colonial policy of domination over nature and people. Ample evidence of this was provided by local people interviewed during the trip to the region.

In Dhotera Forest Village a man said that he had spent almost his entire life in the area. He said that “the Corporation cut the forest and planted. They used to be mixed plantations of hardwood species, but then they discovered that Cryptomeria grew faster and only this species was planted.” He added that “in the past villagers benefited more from both forests and plantations. They could find and sell fruits and other things. Forest fruits are very nutritious. However, the Forestry Department destroyed the forest in 1974, so people copied the government and destroyed forest too arguing that ‘if you can cut, then we can cut too’. Now things are even worse because this has been defined as a ‘wildlife area’, so we have no rights and they are trying to evict us as intruders.”

Another person said that in his area there were originally many species of trees and animals such as deer, bear and tiger. He said that “then they planted teak and now you don’t see even cattle. The roots of these trees can’t hold the soil or stand against wind, so they cannot give the protection provided by forests.”

A young man mentioned that many plantations are a fraud, because the Forestry Department “receives the money, plants trees only along visible borders and the unspent money goes into the foresters’ pockets.”

An old lady said that she had arrived here 50 years ago and had seen the forest disappear. She explained that “at that time the forest was very diverse and provided plenty of things: mushrooms, fruit, vegetables, different things to eat. Now only the stumps of those trees exist.”

Similar evidence was provided by villagers from Bagora Forest Village. One man explained that “the forest was full of medicinal plants, but now we have to use government medicine because we can’t find those plants anymore. Wild animals are now eating our crops because of food scarcity in plantations. The water has become foul and can’t be drunk from springs. The same springs that used to be pure now bring diseases.” He remembered that when they were paid to cut the forest they did it on bare feet, adding that “now we have boots, but there’s nothing in the forest. Cryptomerias give us nothing but problems. Now we even have to prove that we have lived in this area to avoid eviction.”

Another villager described what he said was the oldest teak plantation in India (planted in 1864). He said that the soil used to be much more fertile, with plenty of forest humus, but that “after they cleared the forest the humus disappeared.” He emphasized that “there’s no need to have these plantations anymore. They are not good for people or animals. Teak has made people poor. We can’t take cattle to the plantation. The plantation affects wildlife so it makes people poorer. There is no undergrowth and therefore no food or medicinal plants.”

A young man said that “a village was wiped out by a landslide.” According to villagers, teak trees not only do not hold the soil, but they enhance erosion due to the size of the water drops that are formed on the surface of their large leaves. Those bigger than normal water drops then hit on the soil from the trees’ high crowns -with no undergrowth to protect it- thus resulting in erosion and landslides from the hillsides.

Another person said that the people from this village had been brought here by the British in the 1940s. When the British left, the independent Indian government took over, but “has done nothing to help us. The land got fragmented and now we don’t have sufficient land and we can’t get it from the government. Now there is a road and a school, but our main source of livelihood has been taken away from us. The Forestry Department has mapped the area, but is only mapping a small portion of forest villages. The rest is defined as encroachment.”

An old person added that “in 1942-43 the area was heavily forested.” The Forestry Department brought them here and gave them land, timber for building, separate land for households and for grazing. “We carried out all types of work: clearfelling, charcoal production, tree planting.” The power of Forestry Department officials was such, that “if they came, we had to give them free milk, chicken and eggs.” Such power of forestry officials is still present, though in a different manner: “We are not allowed to take anything out from the cryptomeria plantations, because anything we do there is considered illegal.”

The issue of employment is deeply felt by the villagers. One of them stressed that “there is no employment, because the forest is strictly conserved and plantations provide us with nothing. There is nothing to eat, no land for grazing and no firewood; not even dry sticks.” According to villagers, the Forestry Department has increased harassment here in what they defined as an “outright violation of human rights.”

Similar evidence was provided by the inhabitants of Mayung Forest Village, who also mentioned the occurrence of “plenty of landslides in plantations.” Regarding employment, they said that plantations provide almost no jobs. At the best, they can work some 15 days … a year! As a result, people are migrating.

However, they also showed us a change that has taken place in one part of their area: a mixed plantation established in 1998. This plantation was the result of a meeting held between villagers and the local Forestry Department Officer, where the latter committed to no more monocultures.

In spite of the fact that this is perceived as a positive step, the election of the species for the mixed plantation was done by the Forestry Department with no consultation with villagers, who would have elected more beneficial species. In this plantation there is now some undergrowth for fodder, fruit and medicinal plants, mushrooms. There is now also more wildlife such as deer, wild boar, pheasants. They are happy with this, which compares favourably with monoculture teak and cryptomeria plantations (“which are terrible”) but “it could have been much better if we had been consulted.” They are now intercropping (cardamon, broom-grass).

In sum, the evidence provided by local people in the areas visited again proves that monoculture tree plantations –regardless of the chosen tree species- are socially harmful and environmentally destructive and should never substitute forests. It is now necessary to begin the process of bringing back the forest both through management of existing plantations and through planting with a mix of local species. But it is also necessary to learn from the Mayung Forest Village experience and to involve local populations in the selection of the plantation species to ensure that the future forests will be socially and environmentally beneficial.

By Ricardo Carrere, e-mail: Information gathered during a field trip organized by the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (North Bengal Regional Committee) and NESPON.