Charcoal Wars in Meghalaya

First published on Shillong Daily

The last few weeks have seen a spate of reports on the illegal trade of charcoal in West Khasi Hills. After a local daily broke the news, the administration undertook surprise inspection which led to the seizure of huge quantity of charcoal.

This drive against charcoal trade has been labeled as “clean up mission” with the administration vowing that they will continue their vigil until the illegal trade is completely stopped. As part of the mission people will be also imparted awareness regarding the damage to environment that charcoal making brings.

Charcoal trade is indeed very harmful for the long term prospects of the environment. The most spectacular example of this is the landscape of Cherrapunjee. The Cherrapunjee area represents the paradoxical condition of sparse vegetation growth alongside a heavy rainfall regime. Most famously, Cherrapunjee has been described as a ‘wet desert’.

Among the many explanations for this desolated state is the deforestation undertaken for the production of charcoal in the past. The iron industry was among the prominent industries that flourished in the erstwhile United Khasi-Jaintia Hills before the arrival of the British.

This is a very old industry, the antecedent of which has recently been indicated to be about 2000 years old, with these hills supplying the iron requirement of the plains both in the north (Brahmaputra valley) and the south (Sylhet plains). But the fuel required to drive this industry was charcoal. This led to clearing of huge swathes of forestland for charcoal production, which is probably what happened in Cherrapunjee.

Now, the dense forest on the slopes of the gorges and the few scattered sacred groves are the only reminders left of the long lost vegetation. With no trees, the heavy rainfall accelerated the process of erosion removing the top soil and leaving grassland as the only viable vegetation. Ultimately, what is left is a stony pavement with sparse vegetation which makes regeneration programs also highly difficult. Lest the whole state should suffer Cherrapunjee’s fate, it is important that the charcoal trade is controlled.

Protecting the environment does have lots of benefits and this has been termed as ‘ecosystem services’which can actually be monetized as well. For example, suppose we destroy the catchment area which supplies the water for the whole region. The cost of this destruction can be calculated in terms of how much money would be spent in bringing water from outside the region. In 2010 the Greater Sohra (Cherrapunjee) Water Supply Scheme was inaugurated at the cost of more than 4 crores with the aim of supplying drinking water to Sohra. But this is just one cost for catchment destruction.

With deforestation, landslides can become a regular occurrence which destroys roads, farmlands and other types of property, both public and private. The lower reaches depend on the catchment not only for water but also for fertile soil with annual flood replenishing the fertility downstream. Without the natural supply of fresh soil, fertility will have to be maintained through fertilizers, both natural and artificial. If one factors all these costs the savings that can accrue from catchment protection are enormous.

But there is another aspect of the charcoal trade which is equally important to consider. This is the issue of livelihood. When the Supreme Court imposed a blanket ban of timber felling all over the country, it hit the people dependent on it very badly. This clamping down on the charcoal trade is bound to affect the livelihood of scores of people.

In this context, holding awareness program is not enough if its objective is just to make people understand the benefits of protecting the environment without them getting any tangible benefit in return. Talking of benefits in abstract terms is not good enough when people have to face problems on a daily basis regarding their existence. Apart from the cost for protecting the environment there is another cost which is more relevant for everyday existence, the ‘opportunity cost’ of being deprived of a livelihood.

The catchment which will be protected, in most cases, is the one from which people would have been deriving their livelihood for many generations. Some might be engaged in the charcoal trade but there are other usages as well. Many might be farming in it which apart for providing food also brings some income which allows them to buy other necessities. The catchment might also provide them with firewood and other non-timber forest products, like mushrooms, fruits, orchids, etc., which they might sell in the market.

Stopping people from using the catchment is asking them to forego all these tangible benefits that they currently get. But then if they are allowed to continue with their present activities, the broader ecosystem benefits are going to be destroyed which ultimately will be harmful for them as well. There is, thus, a clash here between short terms gains as against ensuring a more holistic longer term benefits.

A long term perspective is feasible for those who have the resources to tide over current difficulties. Therefore, it is convenient for them to chastise those who are engaged in activities which may harm the environment, i.e., the poor. However, the price paid by the people who have no choice is too high, their very life itself. Therefore, scolding them for destroying the environment and taking away their livelihood is not a fair approach. A substitute has to be provided. This is where most of the problems lay. People are left to fend for themselves.

Support for alternatives is either absent or provided only for a short period leaving people more vulnerable and impoverished in the long run. It is in this respect that the concept of ‘ecosystem services payment’ becomes important. This is a payment made to the people to refrain from using the environment which will lead to long term problems. The amount is determined in terms of the ‘opportunity cost’ which the people incur when they forego their livelihood. In this manner, the twin objectives are achieved—environment is protected and livelihood benefits are sustained.

Ecosystem services payment is not a theoretical idea but a reality in many parts of the world. The most shining example of this is Costa Rica where payments are made to landholders for protecting the environment. The forest cover in Costa Rica which had been reduced to alarming levels by the late 1980’s has recovered after the program was introduced. The payments are made for four services, viz., absorption of greenhouse gases; hydrological services, including of water for human consumption, irrigation and energy production; biodiversity conservation; and scenic beauty for recreation and tourism.

The idea is not unknown in India but it has yet to catch the popular imagination in the country. This is not surprising considering the predilection of the past and present governments for ignoring tribal rights for resource extraction, be it hydro-power, coal, etc., to fuel their machines of economic growth. Such an approach has led to tribal alienation and given birth to left-wing extremist movements like the Maoists.

The state, however, is only looking to accelerate the process. This also shows the hypocrisy of the whole development discourse: state extractive activities which also degrade the environment are considered necessary for a national development whose benefits hardly trickle down to the grassroots; activities which have direct relationship to people livelihood, however, is criminalized.

For Northeast India in general and Meghalaya in particular the problem is more acute with the life of the people and the fate of the environment deeply intertwined. A small population with high levels of poverty greatly dependent on the natural environment makes the ecosystem services payment program a very important solution. In its absence, the other solutions are, providing alternative livelihood opportunities or judicious exploitation with proper care to ensure all resources are not exhausted. Meghalaya’s track record has not been very encouraging in the last two. Maybe it’s time to think of an approach which is gaining recognition all over the world. I hope we are not left behind again.

However, irrespective of any steps taken, what has to be emphasized is that an alternative has to be provided. Unless steps are taken and results noticed in terms of improvement in people’s quality of life it is unfair to clamp down on people’s livelihood and lecture them on the benefits of the environment. When a beneficiary in Costa Rica was asked to choose between cutting down the last tree and watching his children starve he chose the former.

There are real dangers to the destruction of the environment for the present as well as future generation. None are more vulnerable to this than the poor whose activities are always blamed for environmental degradation. The poor, of course,cannot always be blamed as is evidenced by the destruction of the environment in Jaintia Hills due to the greed of few coal barons.

Instead of fighting for the right of the few, the government of Meghalaya should think about the future of the many. This can be done by refraining putting livelihood and the environment at opposing camps but instead integrating them. Paying the poor for protecting the environment should be a good starting point.


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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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