Tosamaidan witnesses deforestation due to tree cutting by timber smugglers

Tosamaidan, the picturesque meadow in central Kashmir, and the vast forest surrounding it are dying a silent death due to deforestation caused by timber smuggling by locals, the very people who have been protesting against the environmental deterioration of the area because of its use by the Army as a firing practice range.
 Tosamaidan, also known as the king of meadows, is located in Pir Panjal range in Budgam district of the Valley. It is not only famous as a pasture, but has its place in the history of Kashmir.
 It is one of the pastures where shepherds from neighbouring countries also used to visit in the ancient times and the Mughals used this route to travel to Poonch in Jammu.
 While the Mughal kings must have witnessed majestic trees during their travel through the forests, a trip to Tosamaidan today gives a dismal look of deforestation due to tree felling by timber smugglers over the years.
 “Almost 40-50 per cent of the forests have been severely devastated by timber smuggling and illegal extraction of firewood. There is a lot of ecological degradation ranging from habitat loss to degeneration of green cover,” Farooq Ahmed Lone, who led a group of scientists working at the Centre for Climate Change and Mountain Agriculture, SKUAST, Kashmir, to Tosamaidan, said.
 Lone, who took the team from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of (SKUAST) to Tosamaidan in November last  year for carrying out ground truthing of the area, said a large chunk of forests in the area has gone treeless.
 “Preliminary observations reveal that a closed forest with more than 70 per cent density has been heavily degraded to a scrub land. 
 A large chunk of forests in the area has gone treeless. As a result, a little rainfall or snowfall is quite enough to trigger a big landslide on steep slopes,” he said.
 Tosamaidan has served as grazing land for the livestock for centuries. The area was leased to the Army in 1964 for setting up an artillery firing range.
 The 50-year lease ended on April 18, 2014 and the Army is seeking an extension, which the locals are opposing.
 There have been many protest demonstrations across Kashmir Valley in support of the demand of the locals to shift the firing range.
 The locals are supported by mainstream and separatist political parties and civil society groups in the Valley who say further usage of the area as a firing range will not only cause damage to life and property, but also to the ecology of the area. 
 However, locals justify the cutting of trees by citing lack of suitable livelihood avenues.
 “What can we do? There is unemployment and poverty. We cut the trees and sell them to the people in need. We make money out of it and use that money to sustain ourselves,” a local said.
 He said they use horses to smuggle the planks out of the area.
 “We cut the trees and transport the planks out of the area to the buyers. We sell two planks for around Rs 3,000 and transport them downwards to Magam area where buyers wait,” he said.
 The planks are then made to dry through girdling (removing the bark at the base to stop any translocation of food and water which subsequently leads to death of the tree) or by deeply chopping off their branches, depriving them of making any food.
 Officials, however, claim that there has been no fresh damage to the forest cover and whatever damage was done was done during the peak of the militancy.
 “The damage to the forest was done during the peak of militancy here. There has been no fresh damage. We conduct regular tours to the area and there is an effective surveillance mechanism to check smuggling,” Ghulam Hassan Rafeeqi, Divisional Forest Officer, Budgam, told PTI.
 Rafeeqi said there has been a control on timber smuggling for the last three to four years and the department is strictly dealing with the offenders.
 “We have set-up control rooms in the three forest ranges in the area. The headquarters of the Forest Protection Force is located in Arizal village nearby and the personnel can be called quickly if there is any incident of smuggling,” he said.
 The officials say last year, 10 persons involved in timber smuggling were booked under the Public Safety Act.
 They said the department has fenced around 48,000 feet of the forest area to curb smuggling and regular plantation of new trees is done.

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