There is a threat of snow, but Chho Kyong Lama is undeterred. Hoping that the blizzards will not begin in the next few days, he prepares for another trading trip to Taklakot on the Nepal-Tibet border. His merchandise: timber from the alpine forests around his village.
It is not just Chho Kyong who is in the business; every family from Kermi village in Humla district would like to make that "last" trip up north before they are forced indoors by the snow. The villagers say they have no choice but to cut down the trees. "Last year I went to Simikot to buy rice. I had to stay at the district headquarters for five days just to get the coupons for five kilos of rice. Including the time I spent on travelling, it took me seven days altogether. The expenses are something else," says Chho Kyong Lama.
This time he decided to do something else to feed himself and his family. Instead of heading to Simikot for rice coupons like everyone else, Chho Kyong decided to cut down trees and sell them at Taklakot and buy food from the market. A mature nine-foot log fetches around 25 kilos of wheat flour at Taklakot and all it takes is seven days to fell, shear and transport two such logs to the border.
It certainly is an effective way of thumbing a collective nose at the central government in Kathmandu that has remained indifferent to the food shortage that hits Humla every year, but for the fact that the forests may not last very many years. Trees have almost vanished in most of Humla district and what Chho Kyong and his neighbours are selling could be the last ones standing. Villages like Kermi, Muchu, Yari and Yangar along the border with Tibet still have patches of green but with the scale of illegal logging now taking place, even these will not last for long.
The high-altitude villages of Humla district are covered in snow for up to six months each year. At this altitude trees take very long to grow and mature. The Himalayan forests we see today are something that have taken thousand of years to mature, which is why the rate at which they are being decimated is so alarming.
Statistics show that 13 percent of Humla is under forest cover. Forty-nine percent comprises coniferous or softwood species, and roughly five percent is hardwood. But these are official figures and do not take into account the plunder that has taken place in recent years. All the same the District Forest Office thinks there is no cause for alarm. "Illegal logging is not very threatening," was an official's bland response.
Most of the timber headed for Tibet passes through the villages of Muchu, Khagalgaun, Hepka, and Dandafya. The forest office has four rangers looking after forests in Humla, and on paper there is even a range post at Muchu. But when we asked the people of Muchu to show us where the post was, they did not have a clue. That could be why the acting chief of the District Forest Office did not know what he was saying when he asserted that "because transportation is difficult very little timber is smuggled".
When we reached the Humla Karnali at Hilsa, we found only an unmanned bridge over the river separating Nepal and the Tibet autonomous region of China. On the Nepal side are five small 'hotels'. Bahadur Lama runs one of them. Pointing towards a yak-and-mule train on the bridge, he said: "It's hard to tell how much timber is taken across every day. They do it night and day. Those caravans are not going to stop until it begins to snow."
Across the river on the Tibetan side lies the small village of Ser. Traders who don't want to carry their timber to Taklakot, 35 km away, sell their logs at Ser. Almost every house in this settlement of 20-25 households stocks timber brought from Nepal. "The progress of the Tibetan society and economy has increased the demand for modern houses," explained Tshering Lama, whom we met in Hilsa.
"More and more modern houses are being built in the Tibetan villages of Ser, Khochar, and Taklakot. This demand is because of the retirement benefits the government gave to officials for building houses," he added. The more houses are built in Tibet the more will be the demand for Nepali timber since that part of the arid high plateau just does not have the forest cover to meet its timber requirements.
Namda Lama, another Nepali from Yalwang who visits Taklakot every month to buy supplies for her hotel, observed a still more worrying trend-over-supply. "The demand for timber is growing but the price is also coming down." Last year a yak-load of timber fetched around 70 yuan (known as Sukar locally) (Rs 750) in Ser but this year it's hard to get even 50 yuan, she told us. "One small plank could fetch at least 22 measures of flour last year, now we only get 12 measures."
Tibetan traders dictate the prices. The villagers usually obtain supplies on credit from dealers in Taklakot and Ser promising payment in timber. However, when they do bring in the wood, they are forced to accept any price the Tibetans offer. The Nepalis have no choice since they cannot take the wood back. Yest, such unfair practices haven't stopped the timber trade.
We asked Chabilal Lama, a member of the District Development Committee, why no one seemed bothered about the deforestation and illegal timber trade. "What should we do, save the forest or save ourselves?" he shot back, and added, "I myself am a thief and cannot survive without selling timber in Taklakot. How can I ask others not to cut down the forests?"
There is a popular saying in Humla: "Rajako ain bhanda khola ko chain thulo." This roughly translates as: state laws are applicable only in Kathmandu, here it is nature that determines how people live. The people also seemed to care less about the laws and more about doing things that would make it possible to survive the next day and the next year.
Assistant Sub-Inspector at the Muchu Police Check Post, Tej Bahadur Sharma, gave us the regular police official's refrain: "We don't allow anyone to smuggle wood from this post. I cannot tell you about what happens elsewhere." This police post is 40 km away from the Hilsa bridge-a distance that locals manage to cover in a full day while a laden yak train takes three days.
All the top district officials we met-District Development Committee Chairman Jiwan Bahadur Shahi, Chief District Officer Chetra Bahadur Bhandari and Deputy Superintendent of Police Jiwan Shrestha-agreed that timber smuggling is not new to the border villages. They spoke in one voice about the reasons and even the inability of the administration to do much: "There's little we can do when people have no other means of feeding themselves and their families."
There's another side to the timber story. Every yak, mule, donkey, sheep and goat caravan returning from Tibet brings back not only flour but also liquor. Some people bring back a few bottles for their own consumption, but more often the animals are loaded with cartons of brandy, whisky and the like. A bottle of liquor that costs Rs 40 in Tibet can fetch up to Rs 100 in Simikot. It makes good trading sense and provides the villagers with much-needed income. Only if it had not been at the cost of the trees.