Timber Smugglers Turn Tourist Guides

Timber Smugglers Turn Tourist Guides

26 June 2010
The Indian Express
Mir Ehsan

Srinagar: Every day, for the last 17 years, Nazir Ahmad Lone would wait for darkness to engulf Arizal, a picturesque hamlet nestled in the dense forests in the Pir Panjal range in Kashmir. At an hour when people didn’t venture out for fear of the army or militants, Lone would pick his axe, get on his horse and set out on a hunt for kail, deodar or fir trees. After he had axed a couple of them, he’d sell the logs, earning just enough to feed his family two meals a day. Lone was a typical timber smuggler, who could be arrested, beaten, and jailed for two years under the Public Safety Act. He managed to escape all the time. Last Saturday, Lone set out on the same journey, except this time he started in bright daylight, not in the dark. This time, he was not alone or with fellow smugglers hiding away from forest officials and police, but with a motley group of chattering foreign and local trekkers. Having replaced his axe with a walking stick and readied his horse to carry trekkers’ suitcases instead of logs, Lone’s head was held high. For it was a moment of redemption for Lone, who had transformed from a timber smuggler struggling to make ends meet to a tourist guide. Ironically, it was the knowledge of forests he had gained during his smuggling years that helped him become a guide. “I know every inch of these forests,” he said with pride, as cheering villagers gave him a warm send-off, along with nine other guides and 13 trekkers, of whom 10 were local, two American and one German. They set off on a five-day , 80-km trek of the Pir Panjal range, beginning from Arizal village and culminating at Poonch, covering the route taken by Sufi saint Bulbul Shah 700 years ago. Lone made about Rs 3,000 from the trek, similar to what he would earn through smuggling, but with the bonus of safety and respect. He is one of the many timber smugglers who’ve been trained by Carin Jodha Fisher, a German-American eco-tourism consultant to the J&K government who mooted the idea of “Trekking for Trees”, a programme which seeks to curtail deforestation in the Valley by turning timber smugglers into guides, porters or cooks. “We can’t end this menace by putting in jail these young men who are doing this just to earn two meals a day. The only solution is to generate employment for the villagers. Ours is a small step in that direction,” she says. The first expedition was held in August 2008 but since the group had ventured near Bosian top in Rafiabad, a “restricted area near the Line of Control,” all the trekkers and guides were detained by the army till senior government officials intervened for their release. The initial jolt caused Fisher to discontinue the programme till she got permission from the army this year and shifted the itinerary from north Kashmir (where the first expedition happened) to central Kashmir. Before they began their journey, the erstwhile timber smugglers attended a brief workshop in which they were explained the exact route of the expedition. They also got to learn on the job. Tahir Ahmad Sheikh, a former illiterate timber smuggler from Sutharan village, for instance, learnt English words like “luggage” and “tent” during his interactions with foreign tourists. He has also learnt that the next time he goes on such an expedition (which may happen next month), he must pack a few clothes for he spent the entire five days in just one salwar-kameez. For the trekkers, this was adventure with a purpose. Michael Matheke, a trekker from the United States, was glad to be part of a cause. “I have trekked many times in the Valley, but today, I am doing it for the environment and to help these timber smugglers. I think my presence in this expedition would be the first step towards saving trees,” he said. Matheke communicated with the guides (who can’t speak English) through domestic trekkers. At the halt of Ringzabal, a meadow and summer habitat of migrating Gujjars, Lone said, “This is a great opportunity for me to begin my life afresh.” When local trekker, Tariq Ahmad Shah, translated that for Matheke, the latter wanted to know why and learnt a great deal about village life in Kashmir: Lone’s parents died when he was five; the only way he could survive in the forests was by cutting trees which he began doing when he was 15 and since then till now, he’s lived in fear of forest guards. On this journey, the erstwhile smugglers faced the forest guards too. After the trek moved from Ringzabal to Kidney (a bean-shaped lush bowl at an altitude of 8,500 feet) and on to a dirt track, three forest guards in uniform and armed with sticks emerged from the dense woods. Smiling, they acknowledged their rough handling of the erstwhile smugglers. “We did everything. We arrested them, beat them and used the harsh Public Safety Act. But nothing worked. Timber smuggling is the only source of income for the villagers. If they get alternate jobs, it will help,’’ said forest guard Abdul Rashid. The final destination of the first day, Tosa Maidan, is a picturesque meadow surrounded by snow-clad mountains, bigger than the often-visited Gulmarg. In the summer, the army uses the mountains of Tosa Maidan as a firing range to train its personnel. The J&K government is planning to turn this meadow into a big-time tourist destination. The group pitched its tents around a bonfire as it got darker in Tosa Maidan. Summing up the first day of the trek, Dr Muzaffar Bhat, a local trekker and an RTI activist who helped in Fisher’s venture, said, “We hope foreign and domestic trekkers will act as brand ambassadors for our area.” He found one in Indian American trekker, Nikhil Murali, who promised to “motivate friends to trek here.” Bashir Ahmed Malik, a timber smuggler-turned-guide, interrupted their conversation. “If we get more trekkers, our lives will change,” he said, recalling the days when he was imprisoned for six days for cutting trees. “The government doesn’t understand our poverty. My imprisonment didn’t deter me as it is a question of survival. You people have come and given me a new life. Please keep coming.”


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