When villagers in Chepti Bagar, Ilam go to bed, smugglers descend into the community forests in the cover of darkness to fell Sal and Sisau trees. Entire trunks and wooden beams are floated down the rivers, where they reach markets further downstream and hundreds of tractor-loads of timber are carted across the border into India.
According to the District Forest Office, 21,000 trees are plundered every year in Ilam, which means one hectare of hillside becomes barren annually. Heavy denudation of the Chure hills has worsened floods, and sudden droughts and flash floods have made things worse for farmers in eastern Nepal.
For Som Bahadur Magar, 19, of Danabari VDC and his 16-year-old brother Amrit the effects of deforestation couldn't have been more real. Heavy rainfall in 2011 set off a flood in the Mai Khola which swept away settlements, farmlands, and cattle and displaced hundreds. The brothers lost their mother and a sibling in the flood. "The river made us orphans and took away four acres of our land. Our farm has turned into a sand bank and now we have nothing left," says Som.
After their mother's death, Som and Amrit lived in a makeshift hut on the local school's premises. Som dropped out of high-school and kept poultry so that he could feed the two of them. Now the brothers spend their nights at neighbours' homes.
Along with lost livelihoods, irregular flashfloods in the Chure region have left irrigation projects and drinking-water supplies irreparably damaged. Last year, 23 irrigation projects were destroyed, and farms were left at the mercy of rainwater. According to Nepal Red Cross Society in Ilam, 39 floods over the last three years have destroyed more than Rs 2 million worth of property.
In Chulachuli alone, three drinking-water projects were wrecked by floods. Irrigation projects including Ratuwa Khola Project, Chajo Khola Irrigation Project, Kamal Khola Irrigation Project and others in Sakphara, Kolbung, and Irauntar suffered Rs 141 million worth of damages.
The increasing frequency of natural disasters can be directly linked to the politics that has seeped into community forestry user groups. With local officials, policemen, and smugglers all in cahoots, the illegal timber trade has become highly institutionalised and villagers of 14 VDCs which lie in the Chure region say their hands are tied. "Officials see no reason to step up inspection or implement the law. As long as they receive cuts from the timber mafia they will simply turn a blind eye," explains Rudra Dahal, a teacher of Mahamai.
According to Chhabi Limbu, President of Kaman Community Forest in Chulachuli, officers at the area and district forest offices demand Rs 25 per cubic feet, and rangers get Rs 15 each as commission for the wood sold from community forests. Rajendra Kafle of the Ilam Forest Office denies these accusations and says that green trees cannot be felled nor sold. But he admits that timber belonging to user groups is being smuggled.
Over in Kathmandu, there is intense competition at the Department of Forests to be transferred to Ilam, with each official fighting for his share of the pie. Imamuddin Ansari, who came to Ilam when Surendra Lal Karna was Forest Officer, went to court and won a case to replace Karna, and spent an entire term there.
Timber from Mahamai and Danabari VDCs goes via Satasidhaam to Jhapa, Morang, and India and through Khudunabari and Sanishchare to Birtamod. Smugglers also take the Tindobhaney route, situated between Mahamai, Baanjho, and Topgachhi. Although there are check posts along the Ilam-Jhapa border as well as on the Danabari-Birtamod road, trafficking continues unabated.
Community forests in Ilam were once synonymous with conservation. Today the district is notorious for rampant logging, and timber poachers and corrupt officials. While a few groups are benefiting from the barren hillsides in Ilam, ordinary citizens will face the long-term repercussions.
Centre for Investigative Journalism
Uprooting Grassroots Democracy
Neither forests nor trees, SURYA THAPA
Nepal's political disarray is destroying what remains of our forests
Village forests go through midlife crisis, RUBEENA MAHATO in NAWALPARASI
Nepal's community forestry movement is threatened by corruption and greed