Trees are our only livelihood

Meghalaya's west Khasi hills. He shares with Centre for Science and Environment media fellow P Madhavan his experience of the charcoal trade

Published: Friday 31 December 2004

You were the president of the Nongstoin unit of the Khasi Students Union (KSU) when the Supreme Court placed its December 1996 stricture on tree-felling in Meghalaya. And you were against tree-felling.
ksu 's stand was that logging was rampant: there was absolutely no control over tree felling. ksu also found that most of the felling was by non-tribals who took tribal land on lease for logging. ksu filed a pil to stop this tree-cutting. I was totally against tree-felling.

What do you do now?
Since 2001, I make charcoal from the wood cut from my 6 square kilometre (km) private forest and sell it to local traders, and sometimes to industrial units at Burnihat 200 km away.

This clashes with your earlier stance.
West Khasi hills is the biggest district in Meghalaya. People here own large forested areas, with all the right to enjoy benefits. Our main occupation is cutting trees. In the old days, we used to cut trees and practise agriculture. Then, when the timber trade began, all of us had our own businesses. The court then passed its strictures. Now, we were left with no other means of livelihood, and so went back to tree-cutting and agriculture. The industrial sprawl at Burnihut provided a potential to start the charcoal business, at a time we did not have options to meet livelihood needs.

What if government bans this trade?
We will go back to shifting cultivation. We only know how to cut trees.

How did you learn to make charcoal?
Some people from Nongstoin, Mukarwat and Mairang (townships) came and taught us how to make charcoal, in early 2000.

How much do you earn?
If the trader collects from the forest he pays Rs 75-80 for 35 kilogrammes (kg) of charcoal, of which Rs 50 goes to the worker who makes this charcoal. If I go to Burnihut to sell the same, it gets purchased for Rs 3,800-4,500 for a tonne. And if I carry a truck-load of charcoal -- 10 tonnes -- the industry people deduct at least 3 to 4 tonnes for moisture and pay only for the rest: that comes to about Rs 28,000-30,000.

How may bags do you make weekly?
150 to 200. We make more in winter, when domestic demand for charcoal increases, fetching us a good price: Rs 100-125 per bag.

What kind of trees do you use?
Initially, for timber, we used to cut bigger trees that got us good money. For charcoal we cut all kinds of trees, even small stems. We do not distinguish between teak, sal or pine.

What is the exact process of making charcoal in your locality?
We first cut the trees, then make a pit in the soil. The cut logs are placed one after another in the pit, in which a fire is made. The pit is then covered with grass and leaves, followed by a layer of wet soil. This is kept for a week, after which the charcoal is ready to collect.

How much do you pay to government or district council as tax or toll?
If the trader collects the charcoal directly from my forest, I pay nothing to the government. But every time I supply an industrial estate, I have to pay off at least five to six people, right from the King of Nongstoin to the District Council, the police, the road transport officer. And if I take a truckload, I pay at least Rs 2,000 as tax, toll or bribe to various officials.

Are you aware what will happen if you continue tree-cutting indiscriminately?
I know that if the forest is destroyed, the environment will be disturbed. Water will dry up.

Then why do you carry on?
Trees are our only livelihood. If we do not cut trees, we are jobless and with no money. People in this area have no other option. There is no other work available. We do not have agricultural land, nor government jobs or schemes to earn money.

Do you plant trees?
I have not planted any trees till now. I do plan to plant some species of teak and sal.

How may people in your village are involved in this trade?
Almost all. Those who have their private forests employ people who don't. Others lease out the community forest or the clans' forest.

If government gives you a livelihood alternative, will you leave this trade?
Definitely. And ask other people to also do so.

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