Illegal felling (on Environmental concern) -DAWN

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TREES are worth saving. At the Sequoia National Park in California, home to some 2,000- to 3,000-year-old trees, hoary old trunks are being given fireproof aluminium cladding in the face of the fast-approaching Paradise and Colony Fires.

Last month, KP approved Rs525 million for the transportation of illegally harvested timber from the Arandu Gol area of Lower Chitral district to the Chakdara district. Illegally felled trees with wood amounting to 1.494 million cubic feet — worth some Rs2.3 billion once it is put up for sale — had been lying in the open for years due to legal issues and wrangling amongst government departments.

The provincial Forests, Parks and Wildlife Department had made the recommendation, intending for the funds from the sale of the wood to be transferred to the forest development fund.

Behind this bland reportage is a whole world of wily manoeuvring and illegality, decades-old and utterly entrenched. This is just one story of countless other tales of woe concerning our depleting forest cover that no government yet has been able to control. The legislation is to some extent there (in Punjab, for example, cutting down a green tree on even private land requires convoluted permissions from the highest levels of the district administration), but implementation is poor and the forest warden system corrupted — or perhaps just helpless.

There is a whole world of wily manoeuvring.

No government can evade its share of the blame, but perhaps greater culpability lies on the shoulders of the PTI government that not only made environmental concerns an election promise but continues to ride on the back of the whimsy of its ‘tree tsunami’ (one billion or 10 billion, depending on the period of time being looked at).

A couple of months ago, the prime minister tweeted his desire for Pakistanis to gear up for the “biggest tree planting campaign in our history”, adding that the “world has 422 trees per person [while] Pakistan has five per person”. He never told us his sources for these figures, but the WWF did tell us a year ago that this country has only 5.7 per cent of land, or around 4.54 million hectares, under forest cover, with a deforestation rate that is the second-highest in Asia following Afghanistan.

Reforestation is one solution, though it is fair to ask the fate of the millions of saplings planted in various drives since the 2018 elections. We have been treated to statements and photo-ops galore about plantation drives, but it is difficult to recall similar press presentations regarding the progress of all those shoots and seeds. How many and which species survived, how much have they grown, where are there now young trees where once there were none? Can we see a picture, please, or have a head-count?

Being that as it may, illegal tree-felling at the hands of the ‘timber mafia’ — which often works in close collusion with political as well as community circles — is a reality that continues to plague us. The problem is rampant across the country, but obviously far more so in the relatively well-forested northern areas. Pakistan loses over 25,000 hectares of trees per year, and the demand for wood is as much as three times higher than sustainable supply according to the 2015 National Forest Policy.

The administration is aware of the scale of the issue. In January, the services of the Frontier Constabulary were commandeered in Gilgit-Baltistan (which is a particular hub of the machinations of the timber mafia) to support the understaffed, ill-trained, and poorly funded forest department. For the next three years, according to this plan, four FC platoons with 36 members each will remain stationed at check points on exits from the area to stop the movement of illegal timber.

Bringing to a halt the transportation of illegally felled trees is key. The decades-old procedure, applicable across the country, is that the relevant forest department periodically conducts a survey and marks out (with stamps) dead or wasting trees, estimating their worth and then auctioning off a contract. But reality is somewhere along the lines of whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if there’s no one to hear it. The country’s forested areas, particularly in the north, are characterised by the lack of paved roads and the multiplicity of unmanned crossing points. And, even where there are check points and unusually vigilant staff — the latter being somewhat hard to imagine in any large numbers — moving timber marked with forged stamps is hardly rocket science.

Reportedly, the illegal felling of trees has drastically slowed down in Gilgit-Baltistan since the FC deployment. But this is no sustainable solution. Better long-term solutions, including community engagement and promoting alternative fuels and building materials, have to be found. Otherwise, the ‘tree tsunami’ notwithstanding, it’s going to be an agonisingly long process of one step forward, two back.