Conservation goals: Kerala community uses solar energy to protect sandalwood reserve from smugglers

The lights will help over 300 forest protection staff for night surveillance

By K A Shaji
Published: Tuesday 03 May 2022

Kerala has embraced clean energy to preserve a forest, in an initiative that’s the first of its kind in the country. The southern state has installed solar lamp posts along 1,460.77 hectares of its prized Marayoor Sandalwood Reserve, the largest source of high-quality sandalwood in India. 

The stretch is frequently attacked by inter-state smugglers and the lights will help more than 300 armed forest protection staff of the reserve. The sandalwood mafia have considerable clout in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

MG Vinod Kumar, Marayoor divisional forest officer, told Down to Earth:

In the first phase, we installed 75 solar lamp posts in a 1-kilometre stretch at Akkaraseema portion of the reserve. Work on the second phase have already begun, and another kilometre will be covered. 

The entire reserve will be turned into a solar power-protected forest in three years, he added.

Located close to the famous hill station Munnar, Marayoor was once infamous for large-scale sandalwood smuggling. In the last five years, round-the-clock vigilance by the reserve staff has ensured smuggling is reduced.

The forest with 57,000 sandalwood trees is covered with metal fencing, and the staff have been provided with guns. The estimated value of the reserve is Rs 3,000 crore.

Surveillance at night remains a tough task in difficult terrains like Akkaraseema despite fencing and constant vigilance, added Kumar. “The protection staff moves around with torches with battery cells. Every month, we had to spend huge amounts buying fresh batteries for the torches. And the torches failed in locating the smugglers.”

In December last year, the project to install solar lamp posts was launched with Rs 7 lakh financial support from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It was an innovative project that evolved based on suggestions from the staff. The department is now planning to install solar-energy operated surveillance cameras for foolproof surveillance.

The timber mafia also operates in the dark of the night and proper lighting is their biggest enemy, Kumar added.

“Akkaraseema has not witnessed any human intrusion since December because of the 75 solar lights which function throughout the night,” he shared. 

Marayoor is also an inter-connecting national park for Chinnar, Kurinjimala, Eravikulam, Pambadum Sholai and Anamudi. Animals from the forests of the Munnar division frequent these forests, and it supports the proposed reserves of Koodakkad and Theerthamalai. 

The sandal reserve is home to many wild animals, mainly Indian bison and elephants. Also, the reserve supports numerous streams and creeks which irrigate the Kanthalloor-Marayoor agricultural regions. 

Marayoor sandals have high oil content and have vast amounts of hardwood, they are very much in demand globally. Marayoor’s sandalwood forests were known for large-scale felling and smuggling by lobbies operating across the south, before it became an independent forest reserve in 2005. 

Every year, the reserve contributes Rs 50 crore to the state's conservation and forestry activities by auctioning the dead and felled sandalwood trees. No tree is cut down for sale. It is now a prominent spot in India to purchase sandalwood officially. 

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