Save Agumbe range rainforest from degradation, fragmentation

I worked as Deputy Conservator of Forests, Shivamogga (then Shimoga) between 1984 and 1988. Although smuggling of valuable timber species such as teak, rosewood, nandi, matti, hone etc and encroachment of forest land in dry deciduous and moist deciduous patches was a major challenge to the administration, the destruction of forests in evergreen and semi evergreen patches was hardly noticed.

Over a period of time, the expansion of cultivation and human habitation assumed sizeable proportion in evergreen and semi evergreen patches as well. On August 5, 2015 I had visited the Megarvalli Range in Thirthahalli taluk to distribute water proof jackets to the front line staff of the Range, a programme supported by a media person. I took some time out to visit the forests of Agumbe Range. The place receives highest rainfall in our state and is known as Cherrapunji of Karnataka.

The rain forests of Agumbe have come under more pressure. In the original notification issued for Balehalli Reserve Forests in 1918, four scattered houses at Mallandur were mentioned as enclave. During my visits as Deputy Conservator of Forests, I had observed that nearly 20 houses were seen in this enclave which is found to have grown to 76 at present and the Revenue Department had granted titles to all these 76 families in 2011-12 under the Forests Rights Act. It is reported to be the first title for forest dwellers (non-tribal) granted under the Act. The titles were granted on the basis of statement from an 86 year-old person living in the enclave and the notification mentioning scattered houses in the hamlet.

Looking into the circumstances, at least 56 families of forest dwellers have been granted titles without completing 75 years, which may not be in accordance with the Act.  It could be a threat to forest conservation. The habitation and cultivation in the hamlet have been enlarged. The pressure on the forest and sanctuary has gone manifold. Attempts are made to draw power line and implement water supply scheme for these scattered houses which would result in further fragmentation of forests.

All roads leading to scattered houses in the forest are now tarred and are being maintained on a regular basis. On the way to Barkhana falls in Balehalli Reserve Forest, several patches of this forest are fenced with barbed wire and RCC pillars. The fencing is done to protect the plantations of cane and other miscellaneous species. Because of the richness in wildlife, the Balehalli Reserve Forest was added to the Someshwara sanctuary in 2012. Movement of wild animals are being noticed in the area but the fencing would obstruct their movement.

The purpose for erection of these fences was to protect the plantations. The purpose has been served and the fencing should be removed now. Many village cattle were found moving in the forest and inflicting damage to the young regenerated plants. Grazing is harmful to the forest and still more harmful to sanctuaries.

Although the area is not known to have resident wild elephants, fragmentation of forest has led to elephants straying out - one person was killed in Mallandur in 2014. Crop damages from bison and sambhar herds are also reported in the recent past.  We should learn a lesson from these incidents and try to reverse the trend of degradation and further fragmentation of forests.

Encroachment cases

A case of encroachment on forest land near M K Bayle, booked by staff of Agumbe range about two months back, has put department personnel on the back foot. Immediately after the issue of FIR, before they were arrested, the people against whom it was registered, got themselves admitted to the hospital levelling charges of assault and rape by forest officials. The police registered a counter case on forest personnel, who were made to run from pillar to post to defend them.

These personnel were further demoralised when a similar complaint was also sent to the National Human Rights Commission, the National Women’s Commission, the chief minister etc. The staff have moved Karnataka High Court for quashing of the FIR against them.

Another case of demoralisation of staff of the same Range and their Deputy Conservator of Forests was that within two days of receipt of proposal of two cases of diversion of forest land of less than one hectare and 1.2 hectare from Malti village to Kudlu for lift Irrigation project, District in-charge minister Kimmane Ratnakara flared up on the forest officers present at a meeting, holding them responsible for delaying the implementation of people’s welfare scheme. All officers present in the meeting supported minister and forest officers were left alone and demoralised.

It is the tactics of many departments requiring forest land for their development programmes, to move proposal without providing adequate details and go on showing the pendency with the forest department on all forums. If the land diversion proposal in such critical forest areas is not properly scrutinised, it may have disastrous consequences like land slide, flood, drought etc.

Plantation of Acacia Auriculiformis and Casurina in degraded and vacant areas in the range in last three decades have brought in a positive transformation. So much of ti-mber, poles and firewood are made available to the public that pressure on natural forests has reduced. But illegal removal of major forest produce from the plantations along the road is noticed. Obviously, it was done to fulfil local requirement. I don’t mind this act of local people, as it has helped the conservation of natural forests to that extent.

We seem to be doing more damage to environment than helping the cause of conservation. Let us wake up to ensure that wonderful rain forests are not degraded and fragmented any more.

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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