An inclusive development programme for local people and sustainable livelihood scheme for tribes launched in the Marayoor Sandal Forest Division has resulted in a considerable drop of crimes related to sandalwood smuggling.

As per the official estimate, only four cases of sandalwood smuggling were reported in 2013, which was a considerable drop from the high level of smuggling cases reported before 2005 when it was part of the Munnar division of the forest department.

The crimes related to sandalwood smuggling were on a decreasing level since the programmes were implemented, and now only less number of people are involved in such crimes. Marayoor Divisional Forest officer Saby Varghese told The Hindu on Thursday that considering the alarming rate of crimes in the forest areas here in the past, it was a major breakthrough slowly achieved through a combined works involving local people and the tribesmen.

It was in 2005, when sandalwood smuggling became a flouring business that the High Court ordered to enumerate the number of trees and to re-enumerate them in every three years to find if there was any tree missing. The forest deportment started the enumeration project and it was completed in a year. In addition to it, strictly monitoring the sandalwood areas was done by creating the Kanthallur range under it.

About 150 watchers with each unit having a forest staff are on night patrolling with walkie-talkies. Each unit has marked areas and is on continuous communication with the neighbouring units also having the main controlling station at the Marayoor divisional office.

“In the first phase, what we had done was strict monitoring and action against those involved in the crimes. Thus slowly the programmes for livelihood were evolved for the tribesmen through Vana Samrakshana Samithis (VSS). Local people were also absorbed as forest watchers and with a good number of them having criminal background also, he said. As they were provided with a regular income by involving them in the protection of sandalwood, the crimes dwindled. Moreover, the main interstate criminals involved in such crimes were also caught. With the creation of VSS and selection of more watchers, no support was receiving from the local people including tribes to the anti-social elements - leading to the fallen offense rate.

At present there are 23 active VSS involved in forest protection, said Mr. Varghese adding that when the tribes were provided with an income and awareness created on them it became their responsibility to protect the forest wealth, he said. The result produced was immense. Various other factors also contributed to this, he said, the elimination of private sandalwood factories in the State under the initiative of the government and making it an offense to posses over one kilogram of sandal and 100 ml of sandalwood oil supported the initiative launched here.

“A major problem was to protect nearly 50,000 sandalwood trees spread over a large area. With only intensifying the night patrolling, it could be possible,'' he said.

The tribes in the forest are also the key stakeholders of the initiative and are not exploited by the smugglers as they are being supported with various livelihood programmes, said Mr. Varghese. The numbering of the trees and intensified night patrolling were the major initiative and when the livelihood schemes for tribes and participatory management of local people clubbed together with it, it became a model for protection of sandalwood in the reserve here.

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