A significant source of income in many of the tribal areas of the Arunachal Pradesh jungle is derived from logging. This is a legal gray area. Technically, the jungle is a protected area. However, the villagers are grudgingly permitted by the Indian government to retrieve timber from the jungle for their own use. “Their own use” is intended as building a roof or a piece of furniture or something else along those lines. However, the villagers interpret “their own use” rather liberally and log quite a bit of timber for the use of others as well.
If a logging crew were questioned by the government, they would simply state that the timber in their possession was for personal use. However, the majority of the timber that they cut is sold commercially. So, it is illegal.
The Indian government is not particularly dedicated to enforcing its forestry regulations though. One reason is that the forestry officials are afraid of the warrior tribes. And for good reason! Just as an example, the grandfather of one of the tribesmen in our small expedition had recently shot and killed a forestry official with his bow and arrow after the official had started doing doing his job a bit too well.
Another reason the Indian government is not exactly chomping at the bit to protect the jungle is due to the many separatist groups active in the region. The government hopes that by overlooking much of the logging that it will keep the disaffected young men of the villages occupied and put some money in their pockets. This, the Indian government hopes, eases some of the pressure on the young men of the tribal areas to join one of the separatist groups.
There are some limits to the logging… The timber operations you’ll see below are small compared to those of companies such as Weyerhaeuser or the former Pacific Lumber as the villagers can only push things so far with the Indian government. A sawmill would be too obvious and the government would close it down.
Some of the riches of the jungle hauled downstream by an elephant:
The opening picture in this post was of a camp just outside the Adi Galo village I profiled in an earlier post. As one moves upstream and farther and farther into the jungle, the frequency of the logging camps thins out until they disappear entirely.
By the way, I should mention our reason for venturing into the jungle in the first place… We were tagging along with a tribal hunting expedition that was journeying deep into the jungle in search of game. This area of Arunachal Pradesh is completely undeveloped. There are no roads or trails here. And so, to make progress into the jungle through the steep canyons, one must travel up the rivers, either scrambling over the rocks or pushing through the river itself. The loggers face the same geographical restrictions and are thus also confined to the river to travel in or out of the jungle. Thus we encountered the timber camps along the way.
During the rainy season, the rivers become impassable and so logging is done during the dry season which lasts for six months of the year:
This is an elephant we encountered coming upstream to pick up a load of logs… The handler actually owns two elephants. His other elephant was working in the neighboring state of Nagaland at the time I took this picture:
Elephants are a very valuable addition to the logging operations as the logs are not light and must often be transported for long distances. This was a blessing for us on the first part of our journey as the dragged logs create a very nice walking path as you can see below…
This is one of the larger timber camps we came across. Those are freshly cut boards on the right waiting to be carried downstream:
Some of the loggers around a fire in their camp… Those are fish traps on the left:
This platform for processing the logs into lumber was set up next to their camp… That’s sawdust on the ground:
The logs are rolled onto the platform and then sawed into the desired board dimensions. The man that wields the saw earns approximately 70 rupees per board he produces.
You can see a work in progress resting on the platform:
The key component in the logging operations:
Indians from outside Arunachal Pradesh are not permitted to own property or businesses in Arunachal Pradesh. So, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh that collectively “own” the land simply by being fortunate enough to be born on it, hire Assamese workers to work the land. By being essentially gifted such a valuable asset at birth, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are able to just hire Assamese laborers and then don’t have to do much work themselves.
So, each logging camp we passed was working for a different family in the village.
The Adi and the Adi Galo tribes fight with the Assamese sometimes because the border between the two states is in dispute, but despite this, the tribes in Arunachal Pradesh still never seem to have trouble locating Assamese laborers for the timber camps:
After the logs have been processed into lumber, the boards must be transported downstream to the villages. These boards are worth 240 rupees each and the men earn 30 to 40 rupees per board to haul them down the river. These guys are setting out from the camp I just profiled:
The loggers feed themselves through what they can extract from the jungle in the form of bushmeat or from fish in the river. You’ll recall the fish traps in the above camp and this fish trap was set slightly upstream from their camp:
Farther upstream we passed another camp that had a net stretched across a section of the river. I noticed that a snake had become entangled in the net and drowned.
As I mentioned at the start, the camps thin out the farther one moves from the villages. With one exception I shall detail shortly, the camps also become less sophisticated the farther from a village one is.
This camp below, for example, is just a shelter for those cutting the trees down and cutting them up. There is no processing of the logs being done here.
The guys that cut the trees down are paid 15-20 rupees per log they produce. One tree can produce multiple logs though as the logs must be cut into sizes that can be worked with. A large log itself is worth around 1800 rupees:
Below is the more sophisticated camp I just mentioned. It was also the last camp we encountered before having the jungle to ourselves.
The reason the crew at this camp were able to have such a camp is because they have elephants. Even still, they were not processing the timber here and were instead simply hauling the logs downstream to be processed into lumber:
The groups of loggers in the jungle are led by a local villager to keep an eye on things, but all of the other workers will be Assamese. The man pictured below is the one from the village supervising this operation. He is gutting and cleaning squirrels they caught with snares set in the jungle:
One of the Assamese loggers in the camp:
Another of the loggers:
While we were talking to the logging crew, their elephant and its handler returned from hauling a load of logs downstream:
The elephant crossing the river into the camp… I was impressed by the dexterity of the elephants we encountered:
The elephant in the camp… Shortly after her return to the camp, she was given her lunch of freshly cut banana leaves mixed with cloves of garlic.
The elephants are rotated around the Northeast of India to get as much work as possible out of them, but they still get 3-4 months off at the owner’s home each year because of the rainy season:
This is the shelter in which the men of this camp live… Just outside of view in this picture was a battery-operated radio to help keep them entertained at night:
A basket of rice in the cooking area of the camp… Hanging on a post to the right of this picture was a large fishing net and a number of snares:
And here, roasting over a fire, is some of the bushmeat caught by those snares:
During a break on our day-long hike into the jungle, I pulled out my notebook to record his responses and asked Karba, one of the members of our expedition who spoke a little English, if the villagers worried at all about the long-term consequences of their logging in the jungle. He seemed surprised by my question and responded, “I don’t worry. We don’t worry. Money is good. It is good to cut trees.”
Now, the Assamese loggers and the villagers from Arunachal Pradesh that hire them are not evil people. Nor are they shallow, stupid or uncaring… They just genuinely do not see the problem that we in the West see. To them the jungle is a limitless resource. It has always been there for them and they cannot conceive of it not always being there. The ramifications of the fact that all of India used to be covered in jungle does not resonate with them.
After pressing Karba a little further on this topic, he justified the logging by stating, “We have no other income.”
Then after several moments of silent reflection, Karba fatalistically mused, “I die. Everyone die.”