Why red gold is too hot for locals to touch

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The Times of India, Andhra Pradesh, India

It sells at Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 a kilo. Its felling is banned, as is export of the precious bio-resource indigenous to Andhra's border districts of Cuddapah-Chittoor. But tons of the red sanders wood are routinely smuggled, and a fraction of it confiscated from local smugglers. The Andhra government auctions the confiscated red sanders --- a healthy revenue for the state. Recently, the Centre also approved global bids.

Red sanders is a much sought after hard wood. In China, it is used to make furniture, in medicines and in aphrodisiacs. Ayurveda too has uses for it. About 500 to 600 million tonnes are smuggled out annually from Andhra's red sanders forests particularly Seshachalam. Logs have been seized from Gujarat, Assam, Manipur among others.

By the Biodiversity Act 2002, the money government makes on sales of the seized wood must be shared with locals. The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), nodal body for regulating conservation and sustainable use of bio-resources, has approved 100 applications between 2006 and 2017 by companies and research organisations to 'extract' various bio-resources: 38 of these for red sanders alone given permission as the "highest bidders" to buy red sanders auctioned by Andhra government. Most of these 38 companies are Chinese.

The Andhra government's last auction saw the wood sold at Rs 28 lakh per million tonnes. Almost 8,500 million tonnes were sold. The NBA shared part of the sale's proceeds only with the AP forest department for now.

"The environment ministry allowed Andhra to export 8,498 MT. Only 1,957 MT is left to be auctioned now. We're using the money to protect the red sanders forests—about Rs 30 crore is spent annually on anti-smuggling force and other important measures. Seizure of smuggled red sanders has reduced from 1,000 MT annually to 600 MT now," says PK Sarangi, principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF), AP forest department. Yet, communities haven't benefitted.

Locals, in fact, live in fear. Twenty men aged between 30 and 50 were gunned down by Andhra police in April 2015. But the brutal killings of the alleged smugglers were reportedly as much to set an example to teach smugglers and poor woodcutters a lesson.

Such is the fear that they believe even growing red sanders, protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is illegal. But forest officials clarify that while its export without state permission is illegal, farmers can grow it. "Farmers think it's illegal to sell red sanders that they grow. It's not true," says Sarangi.

Experts say there's room to involve locals. "Red sanders is endemic to Cuddapah-Chittoor districts of AP but," says an NBA committee member claiming, "there's no direct beneficiary of the species that grows wild in the forests. No single community benefits from it."

This is countered by director at Namati Environmental Justice Programme Kanchi Kohli. "There will be no claimants because the beneficiaries are not even aware. One cannot decide unilaterally that benefits of a high- value resource should go to the forest department. Now biodiversity act and the forest rights act local communities must be consulted," she says.

The NBA has received about Rs 38 crore as "benefit sharing" for red sanders under the Biodiversity Act's access and benefit sharing (ABS) provisions. A committee headed by retired IAS, B Vijayan, is to determine how benefits from red sanders sales can be shared and how these forests can be regenerated. The report is awaited but it reportedly recommends how local communities can be involved in its conservation and how they can economically benefit from the home species.

Benefit-sharing processes are a nascent area in India. NBA chairperson B Meenakumari says, "India is one of the few countries with a law that has an access-and-benefit-sharing provision. Apart from red sanders, NBA's received benefit-sharing to the tune of Rs 44.5 lakh from the export of neem leaves to Japan and some funds from companies for access to seaweeds.

Locals, meanwhile, live with a 'high-value' bio-resource they can do little about, ill-aware even of the forest rights and biodiversity laws that gives them rights as beneficiaries and conservators.