By Robin Hanbury-Tenison

"This logging scandal should be exposed by the international media!" said Amulia Baruah, the head of the Special Branch for the remote tribal region on the Indian Burmese border.  "The police, the Forest department, the lorry owners, they're all in on it and there's nothing any of us can do."

Behind him the hillsides were bare of any vegetation but dotted with little shacks made of palm thatch.  Figures could be seen working the ground, preparing it for crops of millet, maize, pulses, potatoes and hill rice.  They would harvest quite a good crop this year but thereafter the soil would wash away, fertility would vanish and there would soon be nowhere else to cultivate.

Traditionally, the system of jhum or shifting cultivation was strictly controlled and the land was left fallow for six to ten years after being cropped.  Now, as the trees are being removed, all that is changing and soon some of the most independent and self sufficient people in India will become as poor as any in the sub continent.

At the very eastern end of the Himalayas, lie two Indian states which used to be effectively one.  Until 1965 the North East Frontier Agency was administered by the Governor of Assam and it was not until 1987 that the Agency achieved the status of a fully fledged state, Arunachal Pradesh.  Assam is a rich state where, on the fertile plains on either side of the great Brahmaputra river, important crops of rice and tea are grown.  With an area slightly smaller than Portugal it has twice the population (24 million).

It is easy to tell where Arunachal Pradesh begins.  The state wraps itself around Assam, occupying all the steep mountainous land, the frontier literally running along the base of the hills.  As a result, it is often necessary to enter Assam in order to get from one part of the state to another.  Rather larger than its prosperous neighbour, it has a thirtieth of the population.  Almost no one from outside has been allowed in since World War Two.  The reason given was that the remote tribal people were too vulnerable to withstand the impact of the outside world.  Now, limited tourism is being considered and a trickle of experts are being allowed to go and see whether this is a good idea.  All have been dazzled by the richness and appalled by the destruction.  Tourists are not the danger; deforestation is.

In Assam there is little to cause concern, although the constant activities of various rebel independence movements make travel difficult and sometimes dangerous, while giving the visitor pause to wonder if all is well beneath the smiling surface.  The national park of Kaziranga is like one of the great game parks of Africa.  Riding on elephants, visitors are able to go right up to huge one-horned rhinos, watch otters frolicking in a stream and hope to see one of the elusive 70 or so tigers.  The Senior Ranger, Kaziranga Western Region, knows that 16 rhinos were poached last year and two poachers shot.  "The rhinos are increasing slowly" he says. "We now have 1200 here but there are only about 500 left in the rest of the world, so we mustn't fail.  We're desperately short of materials, especially radios as they're the best tools for catching poachers.  Don't send us money.  It never arrives..."

It was only when a tribal village on the edge of the park is visited that the problems begin to appear.  "40% of our crops and livestock are lost to wild animals" the headman of Dogaon told me.  "In the last 12 months more than 50 head of cattle and two of our people have been taken by tigers.  The rhinos come at night and trample what we grow.  There used to be compensation [5000 Rupees (£100) for a death, 3000 Rupees (£60) for serious injury, nothing for cattle or water buffaloes] but that has now stopped as they say there is no money.  We would like to be allowed to kill the animals and use the forest again".

It is an old and familiar story.  International concern over the possible extinction of a major mammal species raises lots of money and pressure to create and staff a national park.  Tourists benefit but the locals are excluded.  Eventually, they will take their land back and the situation will be worse than before.  It has already happened elsewhere in Assam where the Manas Park has had to be closed due to rebel activity and much wildlife has been destroyed.

Up in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh there is a different world.  There are 25 tribes and the people are extraordinarily welcoming to foreigners, having for the most part never seen any before.  Hospitality is still automatic and in each of the huge smoke-filled communal houses the visitor will be treated as an honoured guest, plied with food and drink and begged to stay.

Among the Apa Tani all the women over twenty have large wooden plugs set in each side of their nose.  It is a practice now abandoned but unlike anything to be seen anywhere else in the world.  The Nishi, Hill Miri and Tagin people are each confined to their own valleys and hilltops along the northern border against Tibet and each merit months and years of anthropological study.  The late, great British anthropologist Professor von Fuhrer-Haimendorf was almost the only foreigner to study a few of these tribes in any depth and he is still remembered with affection.  He died in 1993.

The Adi, the most powerful of the tribes and the one to which the Chief Minister belongs, practice Donyi-Poloism, an ancient animist religion which is enjoying a vigorous revival at the moment.  New temples are springing up, long open sided houses where up to five hundred people can gather, sing traditional songs, drink rice wine and listen to rousing sermons.  Anyone can belong, without having to give up their own beliefs if they do not want to.

Arunachal Pradesh has a lot of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but most are inaccessible and impossible to visit.  One, which is being developed and which already has a fine guest house, is Namdapha.  It is the northernmost rainforest in the world and lies right where India, Tibet and Burma (now renamed Myanma) meet, rising to nearly 14,000 feet at the summit of Daphabum, the never-climbed easternmost peak of the Himalayas.  Most significantly, it contains a lot of members of the cat family - more species than anywhere else in the world.  All four of the big ones are to be found there: tigers (about 50), leopards, clouded leopards and snow leopards.  Also five smaller species: leopard cats, jungle cats, fishing cats, marbled cats and golden cats - nine species in all.  The rainforest is beautiful and teems with wildlife, though it is much harder to see than in Kaziranga, being densely forested and very steep everywhere.  There is a tremendous variety of birds, the most visible and audible being the many different hornbills, large, colourful creatures which sound like swans when they fly and often crash land in the trees to give good sightings.  Macaques and gibbons are also plentiful as well as wild dogs, wild elephants, gaur, which are wild oxen, bears and, on the highest slopes, herds of takin, described as large "goat-antelopes".  An extraordinarily rich flora ranging from the lowland tropical at 600 feet to the alpine waits to be properly identified and understood.  But it is the cats that make Namdapha unique.  Incredibly the town on the edge where the park administration live is called Miao...

Along the Burmese border, on the slopes of the Paktai hill, live the Nocte and Wanchu people, close relations of the Nagas.  They only abandoned headhunting in the recent past and the bachelors' houses, into which women are not allowed, contain rows of human skulls.  Some of them are over a hundred years old.  There, too, lives the khom, the great village drum made from the hollow trunk of a tree.  It is struck in a different way to sound the alarm for fire, festivals - and attack!  Some of the old men display on their bare backs tattoos, like stick people, of the heads they have taken.

Each Wanchu village has a burial ground nearby.  There, after a funeral ceremony which involves the killing of a buffalo and is strangely similar to that of the far distant Toraja people who live five thousand kilometres away on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, the bodies are left on platforms to disintegrate.  Tightly wrapped in several layers of cloth, there is no smell and, surprisingly, they seem to be undisturbed by wild animals.  The platforms are surrounded with household objects for the deceased's use in the world beyond.  Eventually, the last traces fade away.

In the Nocte village of Kheti in Tirap District huge thatched houses cluster on a steep, wooded slope.  Each house has a wide bamboo balcony where the women and old people sit and work during the day, calling to each other across the gaps between.  Sometimes Hoolock gibbons can be heard whooping in the distance from a far wooded valley.  They sound like a crowd of wild, unruly schoolchildren.  Each house has two massive poles sticking up a meter or two above the roof ridge.  These are the ends of the main supports for the building and it seems that they can be pushed further down into the ground each time termites eat through their bases.

When the women go out to work in the fields or fetch vast bundles of timber, which they carry home supported by a thong around the forehead, they carry metal spears with beautifully decorated ends.  These are to fight off anyone who attacks them and date from the days when headhunting was a very real danger.  Each girl receives her spear on marriage.

The biggest house in Kheti belongs to the chief, Panwang Rajah.  Outside are twenty huge buffalo skulls, their big black horns spreading out like welcoming arms.  Inside it is spacious and grand, with the feel of a baronial hall.  Among the dark rafters hang all sorts of interesting things.  Woven baskets, blackened with age, straw hats, wooden implements for farming and for cooking, haunches of drying meat.

The chief spoke about the logging.  "The land is being turned into a desert" he said, "but what can I do?  We send elected representatives to the State legislature and they protest but nobody listens.  It is all being done by the government and we cannot fight them."  Some of the other elders gathered round to listen to their chief.  Gentle, dignified and strong, they were used to resolving all problems themselves.  "All disputes" they said "are settled here in the village.  We never go into the town to use the courts there.  We have our own laws and everyone obeys them.  But now our land is vanishing as they come and steal our trees.  What should we do?"

"You are not the first Europeans we have seen, you know" said the old chief suddenly.  During the war an aeroplane crashed near here and several British soldiers parachuted down to us.  Some died, but ten survived and we looked after them.  The 'plane is still up there in the hills.  But no foreigners have been here since."

These people were resilient and confident enough to deal with lots of visitors, although there are no facilities whatever except the government circuit houses, fully occupied for the most part by touring officials.  Large groups of tourists would be out of the question but individual travellers would receive a wonderful welcome.  If they were restricted to staying as guests in the communal houses, where they would sleep on the woven bamboo floor, they would not only have a fascinating time but they could contribute to the peoples' income by paying them directly, something which seldom happens elsewhere.  They would not need to bring food as they would always be fed.  No traveller would ever be allowed to go hungry.  They would be safe while with their hosts, especially out in the countryside, though the same might not be true in the towns or at night on the open road.

The threat to the people and the environment lies in the corruption which is not immediately apparent and all too easy to ignore if one is just passing through.  It is one of the great global scandals and yet it is almost unknown because it is a creeping sort of destruction; because the locals dare not speak out; and outsiders never see what is going on.  It is now too dangerous to travel at night because of the timber poachers.  Piles of logs fresh from the forest lie piled beside the road and stacked in the tea plantations.  Piratical groups of men on painted elephants roam the country and no one dares ask them what their business is.  It is quite unlike the visually horrifying devastation caused by bulldozers tearing out the rainforest, leaving a network of muddy tracks.  But it is just as dangerous in the long run and it is undermining not only the environment but the fabric of the societies who have always lived there.  Now more and more land is needed each year to grow the crops of hill rice which is the staple diet.  Whereas in the past a hillside partly cleared would be allowed to recover, shaded by some tall trees and protected by stands of timber on the ridges and in the valleys; now there is no protection and the hills are often bare as far as the eye can see.  Moreover, the vital supplement of protein from game hunted in the forests is vanishing and has to be replaced with costly and less nutritious tinned food. 

Where is all the timber going?  It is very hard to find out.  Certainly there are roads through into China now from northern Burma.  That is where Burma's teak is vanishing.  Some is being used in India itself, blended perhaps with the legal production.  Some is exported, but it is impossible to confirm where it goes.  It should not matter where it goes or what it is used for.  Once the trees are cut down the damage is done.  The tragedy is that no one feels they can do anything about it.  "If I speak out I will be killed" they said again and again.  "All the politicians and the police are corrupt".  Meanwhile, the Brahmaputra silts up as the soil of the last of the Himalayas flows into the Bay of Bengal.  Its tributaries dry up, the climate changes, tea production drops and the people of the hills need to cultivate more and more steep, eroded land to feed themselves.  No wonder the authorities hesitate to let anyone in to see what is going on.