Monday, September 18, 2023

Century by Century

It was in the 8th decade (1970’s) of the 20th Century, that Bhutan imposed a BAN on commercial harvesting of timber. As of 1979, Bhutan prohibited the export of logs and unprocessed raw lumber - by private individuals and businesses. Every single cubic feet (cft.) of residual timber that was available in the possession of private timber logging operators and sawmill owners - post the BAN - was required to be bought up by a government entity called the EXPORT DIVISION, under the then Ministry of Trade, Industry & Forests.

Such drastic action from the Throne was necessitated as a result of wanton destruction that was being caused to the country’s forest stand - by unscrupulous Forestry officials of the RGoB, in cahoots with greedy timber merchants, coupled with both the legal and illegal cardamom growers in the South of the country.

The extent and scale of the problem was so huge, that:
  1. Along with the timber nationalization policy of 1979, the government was forced to put in place a complete ban on the movement of any form of lumber - during the night - in an attempt to control illegal felling and extraction of timber;
  2. Upon completion of the take-over exercise by the Export Division, to our consternation, it was discovered that the actual timber stock in the hands of the private operators was more than FIFTY TIMES in excess of what was projected by the Forestry Department to be in the possession of the timer traders/saw millers, based on the records of timber harvest permits issued by the Forestry Department.
  3. The volume of timber that needed to be moved to the exit points in the South of the country - in particular Phuentsholing - was so huge that we discovered that the COUNTRY DID NOT HAVE ENOUGH TRUCKS to be able to transport the timbers in time for their profitable sale to buyers.
  4. In order to be able to handle the transfer of timber from their locations in the Northern parts of the country to Phuentsholing while they were still in saleable condition, for the first and last time in the history of Bhutan, the government had to employ the riverine route - to move the bulk of the sawn lumber to Phuentsholing. In other words, we had to use the combined forces of the Haachu, Paachu and Thimchu rivers - to float the stock of lumber down to the Export Division’s timber stock yards located in Phuentsholing. The phenomenal financial disaster that ensued, fortunately, is not recorded in any official documents of the RGoB.
The country imported skilled timber floaters from Jammu & Kashmir in North India, to do the job.

Policy misadventure is nothing new to Bhutan - it is the most celebrated talent of the Bhutanese bureaucracy.

I do not believe that the timber nationalization policy of 1979 was an act in support of nature conservation - I believe that it was an act solely intended to combat large-scale corruption in the Forestry sector. Sadly what resulted was the forfeiture of a most dependable revenue source that, some knowledgeable people believe, could have out-performed the hydropower revenue.

Recent national level study reports reveal that despite close to half a century of banning commercial harvesting of timber in the country, our forest is actually poorer for it - amply proving the repeated point made by our forestry scientist Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel that overstocking forests with excessive trees can result in degradation of the quality of forests. He had made the point that selective thinning of the forest is actually critical for the healthy growth of the forest and many other life forms contained within it.

The government has recently announced that timber and timber products would contribute Nu.10.00 billion to the national exchequer. This means that the country is now all set to lift the BAN on the exploitation of the country’s rotting forests. This is DAMN GOOD!

We are now into a new Century - the 21st Century. A whole new breed of people are at the helm of things. But the question remains: has the bureaucracy evolved into a better specimen of human beings? Or will they, yet again, close to half a century later, instigate another BAN - through corruption, mismanagement and mindless shoddy work?

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