New Delhi: Every night, a convoy of tractors and camel carts plies the highway between Anand and Kheda, both in central Gujarat, ferrying tonnes of wood to more than 50 markets in the area. There’s nothing clandestine about this movement, although that wouldn’t exactly be unexpected in a region where illegal logging is still a Rs1,000 crore industry.
The camel carts and tractors belong to farmers who are moving wood from trees felled legally to wood markets that operate for just two hours every day, between 3am and 5am.
And they mark the last stage of a three-decade-old initiative that marries the individual economic interest of farmers with larger environmental concerns related to deforestation. As a result of this initiative, there is no loss of tree-cover in the arid region, despite some 200 truckloads of wood being sold in the markets every day.
Kheda and Anand, about 110km away from state capital Gandhinagar and home to India’s cooperative diary movement, have quietly been nurturing the country’s first widespread agro-forestry movement. Agro forestry allows people to own the trees they grow in their land and also gives them freedom to cut them and make money by selling the wood in the market. The movement, which began in a small way in the 1970s, has now become a lucrative option for thousands of farmers in the area. Despite trees being cut for wood regularly, the density of tree cover in the region has been growing. Inspired and encouraged by the business opportunity, 44-year-old agro-forester Jayantibhai took on the surname Lakdawala (meaning someone who deals in wood), shut down his business of selling wood to building contractors and took to growing trees full-time.
Efforts of treegrowers such as Lakdawala make up for illegal felling of trees in the region. This takes place largely in government-owned forests, despite the presence of a law, the Saurashtra Tree Felling (Prohibition) Act, that threatens offenders with penalties and a jail term.
Economics has made a difference where the law could not. A government-sponsored agro-forestry scheme and a recent amendment to the Saurashtra Tree Felling (Prohibition) Act allows the farmers to own the trees they grow and cut them at their discretion. “When we started in the early 1970s the number of trees per hectare in Anand district was 14. Today, there are more than 65 trees per hectare. All this only because farmers now not only grow trees but also decide when and whether to cut them,” says Lakdawala.
“I used to catch people cutting trees and recover Rs10-15 lakh every year as penalty from them,” says Vijay Parsane, a forest official who was posted in Anand. That’s changed now, he adds. “The farmer in Gujarat is also an entrepreneur. He understands the language of money. If he is allowed to sell his wood, he would protect his income with sincerity,” says Parsane.
“The amendment (to the Act) clearly states that if you have grown a tree with a view to earning an income, you just have to notify the concerned authorities, except in the case of specific species. This is a big instrument in the hands of farmers wanting to earn additional income from their agricultural land,” says former chief secretary of Gujarat P.K. Laheri.
The amendment will also save the 7,000 saw mills in the state that would have been forced to close down, as the law does not permit any saw mill within a 10km radius of forest cover. “The scenario is now completely different and the people of Kheda and Anand districts are earning an income equal, if not more, to what they earn from the dairy industry,” Laheri adds.
Lakdawala and Parsane are also trying to encourage saw mill owners to participate in the movement by setting aside at least 10% of their profits to buy saplings and distribute them among the farmers of the state.
Lakdawala has recently set up a non-government organization Trend Analysis and Research Unit (Taru, meaning a tree in Gujarati) to further the cause. His vision is to encourage the farmers and the landowners to grow trees and increase the green cover. Anand district has more than 651,000ha of land, of which 50% is under agricultural use and only 30% has green cover.
Laheri says that if Taru is successful in increasing tree cover, farmers in the region “will be able to reap benefits in the next 7-10 years.”