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Trekking in Kashmir: Where nuclear powers once clashed

Kashmir – torn by nuclear rivals India and Pakistan – hopes new trekking business will divert timber smugglers and help reivive the economy.

(Page 5 of 5)

I protest, against the things you done!

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I protest, for a mother who lost her son!

I protest, I'll throw stones and neva run!

I protest, until my freedom has come!

Earlier that night, we watched Indian Army signal flares from a nearby mountain on the Line of Control. As the rockets drifted down with a red glare, I remembered it was July 4, the anniversary of America's separatist movement.

On the morning of JULY 4, we had gone for a day hike to a small glacier, leaving two men back at camp. When we topped a ridge, we turned around to see tiny uniformed men fan out across the meadow toward our tents.

We learned in the evening that Indian soldiers had searched the campsite and said they would keep the two men's IDs until we all came to their outpost a mile away.

With its wooden gate and watchtowers rising from a grassy knoll, the outpost looked like something out of Colonel Custer's day. We sat down on benches and waited. A couple of soldiers took a group photograph for intelligence records and told us to wait for the commanding officer.

After 30 minutes, Rasool went to ask what was taking so long. As a government doctor, he occasionally accompanies the Army when it conducts medical camps to build goodwill among rural Kashmiris. He was clearly annoyed when he relayed the response: "The officer is in the bathroom."

Finally, the soldiers came back, served everyone a cup of tea and biscuits, and returned our IDs. We could go without meeting the officer. (Rasool had not taken the tea. "I wanted to send a message to the officer that I am not friendly with him," he said as we bounded down the trail.)

On the way back, we bumped into three forest officers on foot. They were armed only with notebooks, so I asked what they would do if they actually met a timber smuggler.

"Over here we never hear any sound of an ax," said the leader, arguing that smuggling isn't a problem.

The conservator of forests in Srinagar, Nisar Ahmad, says that "maybe sometimes" forest officials collude with timber thieves, but "that does not mean the forest department has changed its role from protection of forests."

He says his office in 2010 arrested 17 timber thieves and confiscated 508 horses, 68 vehicles, 20 handcarts, and 36,000 cubic feet of timber. He says forest cover has actually expanded in Kashmir since 2009.

But a retired deputy conservator of forests, Gurcharan Singh, estimates that 70 percent of forest officers work hand-in-glove with smugglers. "And I don't know if that [other] 30 percent is [even] there or not," he adds.

Forest cover statistics are misleading, he charges, because they are derived by satellite over a wide area, not taking into account the actual health and thickness of the forest. About one-third of current forest cover is "highly degraded," he says, and the growing forest stock per hectare has fallen by half over the past 50 years.

"Smuggling is more of a socioeconomic problem," says Mr. Singh. Before the uprising, many Kashmiris worked in handicrafts sold to tourists. These cottage industries have dwindled, and to pacify the independence cries, the government is handing out jobs. "Everybody is interested in a government job because people can make easy money and you don't have to do anything," says Singh.

Back on the trail, less than 10 minutes after meeting the forest officials, we encountered two men on horseback.

Rasool asked them if they were timber smugglers. With a mischievous smile, they rode on into the mountains.


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