Dehing Patkai: unearthing the truth behind its conservation

Dehing Patkai Rainforest: The history

It was in the early nineties when the term “Rainforests” buzzed a bell in the collective psyche in Assam. Before that, the people of Assam, even the enlightened, and the educated elite were oblivious to the existence of rainforests in Assam. The term didn’t figure out in any official discourse, popular literature or scholarly essays in colleges and universities. Nor did it figure in any official communications and pamphlets or brochures brought out by State agencies like the Tourism and the Forest Department. The term gained its prominence only after Nature’s Beckon, the premier environmental activist group of Assam, reported its existence in East Assam in the early nineties.

Who destroyed the rainforests in Assam?

Till the eighteenth century, the entire east (Upper) Assam was an extensive and contiguous patch of rainforests. The British were the first to start the annihilation of rainforests in Assam when they cleared millions of hectares of pristine forests to set up tea gardens. The intensity of their annihilation gained momentum when the British discovered coal and oil in the heart of these rainforests. They further hacked billons of trees for laying railway sleepers, making tea chests and decorating their houses. This destruction continued unabated even after the British left India.

The sad part of this tragic saga of destruction was when the exploitation scaled newer heights post-independence. Empowered with the connivance of corrupt politicians and forest officials, hundreds of sawmills, plywood industries and veneer units mushroomed in Upper Assam. And all unscrupulous elements ganged up to eliminate the remaining vestiges of this unparalleled natural glory.

Rainforest survey in Assam

Alarmed at the massive destruction of forests, Nature’s Beckon led by the fiery conservationist Soumyadeep Dutta conducted a baseline survey of the forests of Upper Assam spanning over three years from 1989. Those days, they didn’t have access to modern gadgetry like cell phones, GPS or the internet. Thus, they surveyed the entire area on foot, to understand and document the exact status and individual characteristics of the surviving patches of forests. Their survey revealed that tea gardens, village settlements, deforestation, oil and coal exploration had irreversibly destroyed the previously contiguous rainforests. Most of the surviving patches existed in isolation from each other, therefore slowly and progressively losing their defining characteristics. But a sense of optimism emerged when they found a contiguous stretch of around 500 Sq. Km of rainforests in Joypur, Upper Dehing and Dirok, spread over the two districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh. Though separated by different administrative divisions, these three reserve forests were, in reality, one undivided and continuous stretch of rainforest. The species’ diversity of this entire stretch overwhelmed them. They also woke up to the fact that this stretch was vulnerable to further exploitation, and if left unprotected would perish in no time. And the only way to safeguard these forests was to upgrade these forests as a Wildlife Sanctuary.

Species diversity of Dehing Patkai

The baseline survey of Nature’s Beckon, as stated above,  revealed as astonishing diversity of species. They found eight cat species including Tiger, Leopard, Leopard Cat, Jungle Cat, Clouded Leopard, Golden Cat, Marbled Cat and the Fishing Cat and seven species of primates including the Hollock Gibbon, Slow Loris, Capped Langur, Rhesus Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Stum-tailed Macaque and the Pig-tailed Macaque. They recorded four species of hornbills including the Great Indian, Oriental-pied, Wreathed and the Rufous-necked Hornbill. The mammalian diversity included Elephant, Gaur, Sambar, Barking Dear, Sloth Bear, Himalayan Black Bear, Water Buffalo, etc. They found over 300 species of birds, including the highly endangered White-winged Wood Duck.

Wildlife Sanctuary versus reserve forests

One needs to understand here that as per provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, Reserve Forests enjoy no legal protection. Only Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park enjoy legal sanctity. Forest authorities can extract natural resources like oil, coal, timber and sand from these forests for revenue generation. Thus, Nature’s Beckon petitioned the Government to upgrade the status of these three reserve forests to a Wildlife Sanctuary, suggesting the name ‘Joydehing Wildlife Sanctuary”.

The Rainforest movement in Assam

But it was easier said than done. People in Assam during those days were unaware of the existence of rainforests, let alone understand its characteristics and the need for conserving the rainforest ecosystem. So Nature’s Beckon had to undertake a massive publicity exercise to create awareness about the rainforest and the need for its preservation. The idea was to generate mass support to convince the authorities to declare the area as a Wildlife Sanctuary. They launched their multifaceted rainforest conservation movement in 1994, which included apart from petitions to the authorities, mass communication activities like street plays, wildlife photography exhibitions, slide shows, radio programs, forest camps and workshops. They went to schools, colleges and universities across the state to popularize the concept of rainforest among students and teachers alike. Thousands of students from across the state enrolled in the conservation orientation camps organized by Nature’s Beckon. These students went back to their areas and spread the message for conservation. They took part in protest marches and rallies across the state to demand protection of the rainforests. Nature’s Beckon invited prominent citizens of the state including politicians, journalists, editors, intellectuals, politicians, wildlife photographers, birders, filmmakers and research scholars both from the country and abroad to various seminars and workshops. They solicited the support of national and international conservation agencies to strengthen their cause.  They wrote numerous articles in English and in the local language (Assamese) in various publications across the country and abroad. 

As part of the movement, Nature’s Beckon, with the active participation of the local community, organised the first-ever International Rainforest Festival in 2001. Resource persons, conservationists, wildlife scientists and biologists from all across the world took part in the festival. The then Chief Minister of the State and a plethora of intellectuals including Homen Borgohain also took part in the festival.  The Chief Minister expressed solidarity with the movement, which set the alarm bells ringing among the exploiter’s lobby. This movement lasted for ten long years before the Government acceded to the demands and notified an area of 111.19 sq km as a wildlife sanctuary in June 2004.

Parallel to the movement, Nature’s Beckon also engaged in documenting the biodiversity of the rainforest and published books on the mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies, fishes, insects and the botanical wonders of the place. Quite a few junior researchers came forward to augment the documentation works.

Soumyadeep Dutta, the founder Director of Nature’s Beckon, has detailed the entire chronology of events of the decade-long struggle in a book titled ‘Namchangor Ontexpuri’. This book, penned in Assamese, is the first-ever book on rainforests in Assam. The book details the characteristics of the rainforest, its rich biodiversity, and the importance of preserving it. The book also dwells on the opposition and the hurdles from various vested-interest individuals and organisations, including a few of the then State Government officials. 

Role of the media in the rainforest movement in Assam

The media played a very pivotal role in creating awareness for rainforest conservation in Assam. The Dibrugarh station of All India Radio aired regular programs on the movement to popularize the relevance of rainforests and its conservation. People like the Late Mrinal Kanti Das, the cinematographer par excellence, produced a documentary on rainforests for Doordarshan. He had also started work on a feature film on the rainforest movement, but unfortunately, passed away in a tragic accident before completing the film. 

Many honest and ethical journalists took up the pen to disseminate information about the importance of the rainforest and its conservation. Those days there was only one television channel, and they also played a very positive role in the movement, including commissioning the documentary, as stated above. Despite grave provocations and lure of money, these journalists were steadfast in their commitment to ethical journalism.

Why did the rainforest movement span over a decade: the opposition

The demand for a Wildlife Sanctuary disturbed the status quo of the illegal coal, oil and timber mafias. Armed with political patronage and with the connivance of a few corrupt forest officials, the mafia had a free run in the area. It was but natural that they would oppose any move to preserve these virgin forests. They resorted to threats and bribery and then a vilification campaign to dissuade Nature’s beckon from their resolve. To lend credibility to their opposition, the mafia bought the services of many politicians and officials, including a few pseudo conservationists. And one of them was a corrupt bureaucrat named Choudhury, who resorted to falsehood and slander to discredit the movement. With the blessings of the then Forest Minister, this individual went public with his opposition to the movement. He publicly ridiculed Nature’s Beckon and tried to prove that Dehing Patkai was not a rainforest and that the Hoolock Gibbon was not an endangered species. 

At the directions of the then Forest Minister, he and his cronies devised many plans to thwart the movement. One such move was to allow oil exploration inside the rainforest, and he ensured necessary environmental and forest clearances to a company called Premier Oil to drill inside the reserve. They roped in a so-called primate expert and a member of a prominent NGO in Assam to certify that oil exploration will not harm the Hollock Gibbons. Armed with all clearances, this company started mobilising man and equipment and cleared a vast stretch of rainforest to drill. But the massive opposition led by Nature’s Beckon successfully thwarted this move. 

When all these efforts failed, in 2003 this corrupt official and the mafia then hurriedly announced an area of 937 sq. km as Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve with no baseline survey. This was a suave technical move to hoodwink the people of Assam and the then Chief Minister (who took a keen interest in the movement) to create an impression that this entire area is now safe. They took this move in such haste that they even included a historical town like Digboi inside this elephant reserve. Little did they realise that Nature’s beckon would call this bluff. 

Wildlife Sanctuary versus Elephant Reserve

For the average person, an area reserved for elephants creates a notion that the area is safe for elephants. But in reality, this is far from the truth. As per provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, elephant reserve doesn’t enjoy any legal sanctity. The only benefit of an elephant reserve is that people who suffer casualties because of human elephant conflict in these areas receive a compensation from Project Elephant. There are no mechanisms to ensure protection in these areas, either for elephants or other wildlife. 

This entire exercise of declaring an Elephant Reserve instead of a Wildlife Sanctuary was to ensure that all non-forestry activities can go on unhindered. They implemented this move to negate and dilute the rainforest movement and to fool the people of Assam into believing that the then Government was serious about protecting our natural resources. Whereas, in reality, the Government ensured and retained all rights to extract forest resources including coal, oil and timber from inside the Elephant Reserve. The recent 2020 approval by the NBWL (National Board of Wildlife) to Coal India for mining the Saleki coalfield proves the true intent of that move in 2003. It didn’t matter that Saleki is a Proposed Reserve Forest or that it falls within the confines of the 937 sq km Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.

Dehing Patkai - the future​

The Government finally succumbed to the pressure of the rainforest movement and notified 111.19 sq km as Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in June 2004. The then Government had then also assured that subsequently, they will include the entire 500 sq km in the wildlife sanctuary in a phase-wise manner. But seventeen years have passed by and the situation remains the same. Successive Governments have turned their back against preserving our natural resources. In the name of energy security, they are always on the lookout to open up our forests for random destruction by a select few. It is time that every right-thinking citizen of this country fight to save our precious forest resources. Meanwhile, Nature’s Beckon continues their fight against these inimical forces and we all need to support this noble cause. 

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Bhaskar J. Barua

Bhaskar J. Barua is the founder of Agoratoli Ecotourism Jungle Lodge and co-founder of Kaziranga Foundation and Kaziranga Organics. He is passionate about wildlife conservation, empowerment of locals, ecotourism, and wildlife photography. Having lived in Agoratoli from 2010, he is closely associated with the local community of the fringe areas of Kaziranga. He believes in empowering the local community for conservation works through ecotourism and sustainable agriculture.