Tuesday, October 6, 2009

“Felling a Tree” Its more sensible to break the law than abide by it

This blog is devoted to thinking out what we do and why and to encourage rational thought to improve our lives, and the environment. I would like to report on a current event, where we do our best to do abide by the law, and are obstructed in our endeavor, by the system that is in favor of the law breaker.

My sister purchased a property over a year ago, and wanted to use the wood from some of the Teak trees that had been planted on her property in Minneriya, to make the doors of her house she is building in Battaramulla. I note below the sequence of events in order to get the necessary paperwork to cut and haul the logs to the building site from the property.

Due the land not having freehold title, as very little land in the Polonnaruwa district have such titles, she had to obtain the assistance of the person who sold her the property. It is not yet registered in her name due to various Jayaboomi land holding laws that make it exceedingly difficult and bureaucratic to transfer property, which effectively is at the discretion of the Divisional Secretary (Pradeshiya Lekam) I will elaborate on the ridiculously restrictive land ownership issues in a different entry in the future as it digresses from the issue at hand.

We met the Grama Sevaka, the local government representative for the village and consulted him on how to go about the process, and we followed his advice. It is the same whether it is to cut one tree or a 100, the quantity is not the issue.

To get a letter from the registered owner of the property, addressed to the divisional secretary giving the property identification, and our identification, requesting permission to cut some trees on your property was the first step. Once that was handed over, the Divisional Secretary authorizes the staff to hand over the forms necessary to fell timber. Before this is handed over, one has to convince the Secretary that it is a reasonable request, such as the purpose for this felling and that the trees were in fact planted and less than 10% of the planted trees will be cut.

Once received, the form is completed. We note each tree, height, girth and location on a map as well as marking the tree for felling. We take the completed form to the Grama Sevaka who then agrees on a time to visit the property to go through the request. He arrives the next morning and goes through the trees that require to be cut. The girth has to be at least 3ft, and no trees can be on the river reservation part of the property, where most of the Teak trees have been planted! Additionally no tree can be cut if they are within 11ft of the canal that brings the water to the property from the Minneriya tank. Both these rules were not known to us till this moment, as all the trees were actually planted so that they could be felled once the time and need arose. Under this ruling 6 of the 16 trees earmarked for felling by the carpenter who had to come from the building site to choose the trees, had to be excluded, so a further 5 had to be found and earmarked to make it economical to transport, and the need for the doors would be fulfilled.

Once the revised number of trees were authorized and certified by him, a further trip to the Divisional Secretariat to obtain their seal of approval for felling had to be obtained before the next layer of authorization, the Forest Department. The next day a trip to Habarana, 35km away had to be made to the Forest Department who now have to approve that these trees can be cut, as only they know type of tree that is permissible for felling. Upon arrival they had gone on a raid (a ruse to profit personally from catching a person who is felling and where the information would have been received by an envious neighbor, rather than a concerned citizen.) Once they returned they said it was too late for them that day and requested to return on Monday morning to pick an officer. That was Friday after a days hanging around waiting for the officers to return from the raid.

On Monday the Forest Ranger was brought, approved, and then had to be returned back to Habarana, making it two round trips. Then the tree cutters had to be commissioned, and they would not give an estimate on the cost of cutting, until after cutting as they need to know the extent of the work and in order to engage transport, the number and length of cut logs had to be worked out. This meant that we were at the mercy of the chainsaw man and the transport man in terms of their charges with little room for negotiation.

Once felled and cut and hauled to a central location using a tractor, we have to go through the whole process of getting the Forest Ranger to put his stamp on each log, and the two round trips to Habarana, for that authorization, and then over to the Grama Sevaka certifying this was all in order, before going back to the Divisional Secretariat to obtain the permit to transport the logs, where one has to give the license plate of the truck, and one is given a window of a day time to put the logs on a truck and haul them to the destination by 6pm at the latest. Along the way despite the correct paperwork, checkpoints require palms to be greased as they can delay the release of trucks. If the truck has not reached the destination by 6pm, it is held and the logs removed and asked to go back to the point of origination to get another permit to take them on another day during daylight hours, something no rational human being can comprehend.

These procedures can be delayed at the discretion of the bureaucrat as he has no reason to speed it up if it interferes with his tea break and any bloody minded reason for delay, so palms have to be greased for them just to do their job and not to cut any corners as this seems to be expected by these people as a right. If one does not wish to bribe this one may have to wait weeks for the relevant permissions and authorizations. Each day of delay incurs lodging costs and meals to say nothing of the long distances to travel, and the attendant vehicle costs. Remember that a Teak tree in this area can be purchased before cutting for Rs4000. So in retrospect it may have been cheaper to arrange to buy someone else’s trees and get them to do all the paperwork of arranging the aforesaid and have them delivered to the destination, instead of coming and doing it yourself. All the time and costs associated above would be avoided.

When one mentions this to the locals, they say they do not get permission to cut, as they just do it illegally as it just makes no sense to go through the paperwork which can cost more than the value of the trees. Small wonder that 90% of the tree felling is illegal, as it is just too time consuming and fraught with too many impediments to do it the legal way.

Most trees are grown on reservation lands as one cannot use this land for housing or agriculture, or along the property boundaries, so if most of those trees cannot be legally felled, then one can either assume that the planter had no knowledge of the felling rules, or if he did he was assuming the person in the future cutting them would just do it illegally. Such is the chaos governing tree felling. The reason this does not get publicity is that no one actually tries to do it legally, and so everyone fells trees that should not or would not obtain permission, thereby making a mockery of the law.

It is important that the law be changed to allow one to three trees a year to be cut on your property without all the paperwork, excluding prohibited trees. We are constantly planting trees with the future in mind and not our personal profit, but do not get any credit for doing so either. Additionally one ought to be permitted to cut a certain number of trees for use on one’s own property for the purposes of building one’s own premises. It is people without means who have property with such trees, and the law seems to help the wealthy, making it harder for the people and leaving them to be exploited by unscrupulous traders and politicians who are able to profit immensely from the huge disparity between market price of trees at source and the value of the logs in Colombo once they have been transported. It is sheer highway robbery that is taking place now, with no safeguarding of trees which is the object of the rules in place.

Update as at 9th Oct 2009: The paperwork was presented to the Hingurakgoda Divisional Secretary to authorize. She after a lot of explanation, passed the matter on to a junior to go to the site and file a report. This assistant had gone through the whole land, looking for non existent boundary stone markings of the last century. A whole day was spent waiting for his report as he was out most of the day at an event- quite unnecessary to his functions, and as yet has not submitted his report before the divisional secretary, for her to be convinced to authorise the request before one tree is cut. No wonder no one goes through all this to cut. They just do it and hope no one notices!!

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