One’s community forest is claimed by the other as pastureland

Highland: The highlanders of Merak and people of Phongmey are at loggerheads over the boundary demarcation between the two gewogs.

The yak herders need pastures for their cattle.  The adjoining gewog, Phongmey, is turning more forests into community forests, forcing cattle out of the locally protected areas.  Villagers of Phongmey claims that the border boundary runs until a point, known to the locals as Shingboto, above the Phongmey community forest (CF); the highlanders claim their boundary extends until Monsam that falls within the premises of the CF.

Despite repeated discussions between local leaders and people of the two gewogs, and deliberations at the dzongkhag tshogdu, the dispute is yet to be resolved.  Discussions reignited recently when about 10 cattle from Merak strayed into the community forest.

Phongmey mangmi, Namgyel Wangdi, said that the dispute over boundary demarcation started after the gewog converted around 500 hectares of forest into a community forest.  Merak gewog accused Phongmey of not consulting before declaring the size of its community forest that they claim falls under Merak.

“From the time of our ancestors, the boundary was identified at Shingboto, and the community forest falls under our gewog. So, we didn’t feel the need to discuss with Merak people,” Namgyel Wangdi said.

The chairman of the community forest, Tshering Gyeltshen said that Phongmey would lease out the tsamdros to the herders of Merak in the past before the community forest was formed.

He said that the idea of community forest surfaced, because people from the neighboring gewog of Radhi started rigorous felling of trees.  Landslides were frequent and there was a crucial need to save the forest.

“After the community forest came up, we didn’t allow Merak herders to graze their cattle inside the CF because the law prohibits it,” he said. “The dispute over the boundary demarcation got worse after cattle from Merak encroached into the CF and we started penalising the herders.”

People of Merak then started claiming that the CF also fell within their gewog.  Before last year, the two gewogs settled that the boundary fell at Shingboto.  However, when the demarcation was being carried out, Merak people objected to it.

Merak mangmi, Jurmey, said that they couldn’t agree on the demarcation, because the boundary diverted over Zozongmabrag in Momnangkharung, which otherwise should have run straight.

“If we agreed to the demarcation, we’d have lost more of our tsamdros to Phongmey,” he said. “Moreover, Phongmey shouldn’t have formed the CF, when the boundary demarcation issue is yet to be sorted out.”

Tshering Wangdi, a villager from Chebling in Merak, said that Phongmey’s decision to penalise herders when cattle entered the CF was harsh.

“For ages, our cattle have been grazing in the tsamdros in Phongmey and, despite our best efforts, cattle still enter the CF area. We’re helpless and they’re bullying us,” he said. “How could they penalise herders when the boundary is still not finalised?”

Merak gup, Ghayden, said the issue required immediate attention.  Instances of people of the two gewogs getting involved in heated arguments, and going almost physical, have started taking place.

“Recently, when they held up our cattle in the CF, they warned our people that the cattle would be slaughtered if seen trespassing again,” he said. “Things could turn for worse if the issue isn’t resolved soon.”

Meanwhile, people of Phongmey also claim that a highlander nearly shot them with an arrow for holding the cattle. “The only solution we foresee is the dzongkhag or any higher authority showing us the actual boundary demarcation. We believe there should be a map depicting the details,” the Phongmey mangmi said.

By Tshering Wangdi,  Trashigang