Kerala’s invitation to disaster and disease by triggering a potential loss of 50 Lakh old growth trees

23rd March 2020 was World Climate Action Day , 22nd Mar 2020 World Water Day and 21st Mar 2020 International Day of Forests. All the above three themes are interconnected from an environmental standpoint with conserving forests at the core of ensuring carbon sequestration and water conservation. All our major rivers of peninsular India originate from forests. Without Forests, humanity do not stand any chance to survive on this planet.

Amendment of a diluted law 

On 23rd Mar 2020, Manorama print reported an order of the Principal Secretary, Revenue department for allowing owners of the patta land for chopping down reserved trees except for sandal. Let us peep into the prevailing laws in Kerala and the changes to some critical sections.
a) The Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non forest areas (Amendment) Act, 2007 categorises tree species as “specified” which include Sandal wood, Teak, Rosewood, Irul, Thempaavu, Kampakam, Chadachi, Chandana Vembu and Vellakil.  These 9 species belong to the State and hence permission is needed for any felling.
b) The amendment of 2007 allowed the owner of the land to cut and remove 28 tree species without the permission of the authorities.  The 2007 amendment diluted the act and triggered large scale tree felling in  areas under cardamom plantations including some endemic species like Aranamaram.

c) This act is a diluted version of Kerala Preservation of Trees Act 1986 which was enacted for regulating indiscriminate tree felling, prevent soil erosion in the state.
d) The recent order of Mar 2020, overrides two preceding laws – Kerala Preservation of Trees Act 1986 and the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth Act in Non forest areas making it easy for felling large old growth trees of any species except Sandalwood possible without any permission. 

What does this mean ? 

The new provision would mean decimation of many old growth endangered species like Kambakam ( Hopea parviflora, Endangered) , Vella Akil ( Dysoxylum malabaricum, Endangered). Many of them fall under the category of rare, endangered and threatened tree (RET as per IUCN) species of Western Ghats. Similarly there are species  that are found only in the Western Ghats like Toona ciliata .

The 8 species that are dereserved as per the 2020 order include Teak (Tectona grandis), Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), Irul (Xylia xylocarpa), Thempavu (Terminalia tomentosa), Kampakam (Hopea parviflora) , Chadachi (Grewia tiliaefolia), Chandana Vembu (Toona ciliata), Vella Akil (Dysoxylum malabaricum)

With the notice to dereserve these 8  additional  species, what we would set to lose is a larger biodiversity and canopy layer in the landscape of the fragile hills. These are centuries old grandmother trees of rosewood and irul  that have been safeguarding the steep hill slopes of villages in the landslide prone area.

The History

In 1950s and 1960s approximately 40,000 Ha of forest land was assigned for plantation purpose for livelihoods as part of Land assignment act. Later the assignees were given patta by revenue department. The trees on these lands were reserved and not permitted for free felling. These assigned lands are on rocky terrain which made it impossible for any quarrying activities so far. The vested interest had tried dereserving of these old growth trees repeatedly during the tenure of Shri. V S  Achyuthandan, Shri. EK Nayanar and Shri.Umman Chandi as Chief Ministers of State. Due to stiff opposition and fear of potential landslides, trees were reserved by the Government. The right of removing and selling matured and diseased trees was with the Government. The proceeds would go to the Government exchequer which belongs to the public. Thus since independence, these old growth trees that were once part of forest land remained a property of the Government though the land holders received patta from revenue department for using the land for livelihood purposes.

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 are included. This would mean 10 Lakh Hectares of land area which would have these 8 species of trees. 

Impact to a minimum of 50 Lakh, 300 year old trees 

With the new order of 2020, the proceeds of felled trees will be the sole property of large private landholders. With an estimated loss of a minimum of 10 Lakh Hectares of over 300 year old growth trees, the number of trees would approximate to a minimum 50 Lakhs. Since the time of independence and prior to the enactment of Forest Conservation Act 1980 these reserved trees have stood the test of times from human sabotage.
The present Kerala Govt has successfully ensured axe falling on these large old growth trees for opening up the land area for other kinds of development. Once the trees are gone, the exposed rocky terrain in these landscapes will be unfit for cultivation and make it an ideal breeding ground for quarry mafia to thrive.

Landslides and Floods of Kerala

Kerala is yet to recover from the damages caused by unprecedented floods and landslides for two consecutive years in 2018 and 2019.   According to the ministry’s National Emergency Response Centre (NERC), 488 people have died in Kerala and 54.11 lakh in 14 districts have been severely hit by floods and landslides. As per the GO Order of State Disaster Management (SDMA) dated 23rd Aug 2019, 1038 villages in Kerala are declared as flood/ landslide affected. Over 600 acres were washed away in the landslide and and landslip incidents in Wayanad in Year 2019. Puthumala and Kavalappara saw some of the worst disasters in the recent past with scores of people buried alive.
The new order by Kerala Principal Secretary of Revenue department is a perfect recipe to trigger disasters in the hill districts. Our hope is that the Government will also set aside disaster relief to the planters who are cutting the branch of the very same tree they are sitting on. 

Habitat loss and disease outbreaks

In 2012 David Quammen published the book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He wrote, “The next big and murderous human pandemic —most likely a virus—will spill over into humans from a nonhuman animal.”  He quotes in his interview with Steve Mirsky in Scientific American We humans are an outbreak population because we have so exploded in terms of our numbers, in terms of our total mass, in terms of the amount of resources that we irrigate; we’re cutting our way through the tropical forests, building timber camps, building villages, killing animals and eating them, disrupting relationships between reservoir hosts and the viruses and other microbes that live within them. I say in the book, “You shake a tree, and things fall out.” And that’s one of the reasons why there’s a drumbeat of increasing cases of these emerging diseases, particularly viruses.” 

Even HIV, AIDS apart from Corona, Nipah, Zika, Ebola, SARS, Yellow fever, influenza among others originated due to deforestation, urbanization, bushmeat consumption, extensive road networks and contact of indigenous people with outside world.

Conclusion

To the knowledge of those enacting laws, 

1. 50 Lakh tree loss of 300 year old growth trees would mean habitat loss of many more mammal, bird species. By removing permission required for tree feeling, many hillocks would be left barren without any Govt control.

2. Habitat loss is one of the primary causes of this spillover effect of viruses that trigger deadly diseases in humans. New Roads, Four laning through thick ever green forests, clear felling for timber, hydro electric projects, railway lines, mining could unleash the large reservoir of deadly virus from the wild animals through our animal husbandry to humans. COVID19 could just be the beginning of this deadly outbreak humans have triggered.

3. Tropical forests are home to several biologically important species of trees that supply an unending food source to several pollinator species and birds. Interestingly our Gods own country is home to some of the last remaining tropical forests on the planet.

4. Western Ghats are considered to be one of the eight most important “hotspots” of biological diversity in the world. Out of these 39 site elements of UNESCO World Heritage site, 18 of them are in Kerala. This brings out the endemicity, criticality and threat status of the landscape that is at stake for such indiscriminate tree felling outside the reserved forest land.  

5. It is appalling to note that the Government is yet to learn its lessons on importance of  forest/ old growth tree conservation from two consecutive floods and landslides and two deadly virus outbreaks in the State. These 300 year old grandmother trees and its well formed root systems are one of the last hopes on a landscape that is reeling under the aftermath of devastating landslides where poor farmers have lost their source of livelihood.
It is ironical to note that a Government who was applauded for it’s first carbon-neutral initiatives in the country and who took proactive steps in the face of two deadly viruses for the welfare of the people have fallen prey to the large landowners and private interests of timber and quarry mafia. Counter-productive and questionable measures in enacting such an amendment which is potentially the reason for such virus outbreaks in Kerala after discounting the significant international mobile population of Kerala, while also declaring INR 20,000 Crore special package to tackle the impact of Covid 19 outbreak.
The Sanskrit phrase reverberates into the future of our children “Vinaashakaalae Vipareethabuddhi”. Hope there will be proactive interventions by the Honorable Chief Minister of State to stop clear felling on Kerala’s fragile mountain slopes.

About the Author

Meera Rajesh has 10 years of experience working with hill communities in restoration of forest lands by conserving 150+ tree species of Western Ghats including RET. She is also a lawyer who works on environmental causes.

References :

Acts: https://www.legalcrystal.com/act/135132/the-kerala-promotion-of-tree-growth-in-nonforestareas-amendment-act-2007-complete-acthttp://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/ind80121.pdf
Destruction of Habitats and disease outbreaks: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/destroyed-habitat-creates-the-perfect-conditions-for-coronavirus-to-emerge/?fbclid=IwAR0_pAv_7RP00vE6v0pDMyNtOEAblEKSrw0Z1ZFLVdVdxkD4l0EGfnP8JlI

https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/david-quammen-the-spillover-of-anim-12-11-18/https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/28/opinion/coronavirus-china.html?fbclid=IwAR3lV5PvcCyEz438p7sOslylHEIepu1mnoQW8uit4bMWf3ZWgInGTOMEk3Yhttps://www.independent.co.uk/environment/coronavirus-uk-pandemics-environmentalists-warning-a9413996.html?fbclid=IwAR2HlkyUG1Uf9e_w6kDLHkfY2Wg6M1uduIzq7BlawxcZEIdIe8iw4PnyuOI

https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/safe-forests-safe-people-the-hindu-editorial-on-diseases-of-animal-origin/article31242337.ece

https://rainforests.mongabay.com/09aids.htm

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12286883

https://e360.yale.edu/features/how_forest_loss_is_leading_to_a_rise_in_human_disease_malaria_zika_climate_change

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/11/deforestation-leading-to-more-infectious-diseases-in-humans/

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