Timber heist in Jhang

Hamid Hussain takes us to the frontline of South Punjab's losing battle against deforestation

Timber heist in Jhang
Deforestation and the problems caused by climate change do not usually get much media attention in Pakistan’s turbulent political and security conditions. Now one of the biggest forests in Punjab, which is situated near Satra Pul locality in Shorkot tehsil of district Jhang, is under serious threat as trees are being rapidly chopped from the forest. The forest is known as’ Shorkot Forest’ and was established in 1880 by the British Empire.

The purpose of the forest, which covers an area of 1,200 acres, was desalinisation of the subsoil water, which was harmful for crops. However, this lush greenery is under threat

According to a report published by the Pakistan Forest Institute in 2012, “Pakistan in general, and Punjab in particular, is deficient in forest resources, the forest cover in Punjab has dropped down from 0.608 million hectare to 0.550 million hectare since 1992.” This means that Punjab is losing its forest cover at the alarming rate of 2,900 hectares per annum. The province has 4.1 per cent of its total land reserved for protected forest, which falls short of international standards.

According to a survey of WWF-Pakistan, published in February 2016, “Chopping of riverine forests in southern Punjab is continued at alarmingly fast rate.”

The report says there are three forest types in Punjab – the pine forests of Murree, the scrubs of the Salt Range and the riverine forests near Kot Addu, Vehari and Muzaffargarh. The riverine forests, along the River Indus in south Punjab, are being chopped down much faster when compared to other natural forests in the province.

After the independence of Pakistan in 1947, the Shorkot forest was handed over to the Department of Forestry. However, due to the negligence of the authorities, a timber mafia has long been stealing the priceless natural resource from the jungle. The purposely planted jungle is now being shaved off gradually by this timber mafia with the collusion of local stakeholders who have an interest in its exploitation – mostly financial.
Journalist Ansar Khan Baloch says the timber mafia is busy chopping trees, helped by the authorities responsible for looking after the forest

Local journalist Ansar Khan Baloch, based in Jhang, says the timber mafia is, in fact, busy chopping trees with the help of those who are responsible for looking after the forest. He claims that forest inspectors deployed to protect the vital natural resource themselves chop trees and load them into trucks. Later, according to him, they light a fire in the jungle to make it look as though the trees were gutted in a wild fire. Sometime the forest inspectors register a case against ‘unknown people’ just to fulfill formal procedures.

In 2014, police, upon the request of local people, raided a house near the forest where the local timber mafia had stored a huge cache stolen from the Shorkot forest. Police, after investigation, revealed that forest officials are indeed involved in chopping and selling trees to the timber mafia.

The Punjab Forests (Amendment) Ordinance 2016 was promulgated after the approval of the Governor of Punjab on the 26th of January 2016. Under this amendment, section 27 and 34-A of the Act have been repealed, and a subsection 3 has been added. After the amendment the provincial government, with the approval of the provincial cabinet, can use or allow use of a reserve forest or any part of reserved forestland for any other purposes.

Ansar Khan says this amendment will pave the way for the destruction of protected forest lands in Punjab, which will have an adverse effect on the biodiversity of the province and will multiply the problem of climate change.

Social activist Hayat Shah from Shortkot says last year a great number of trees were burnt after they caught fire, but the forest officials claimed they had no idea how many trees had been burnt in the fire. Shah believes that the department has a complete record of the types and number of trees but they are trying to hide it.

SDO forestry district Jhang, Muhammad Qasim rejects these allegations saying that the forest has been divided into different blocks and each block has a security guard. Whenever a fire erupts in the forest or trees are chopped by the timber mafia, the security guards investigate.

He says the forest inspectors do burn the useless trees in the forest, due to which sometimes other trees catch fire but that one cannot consider that deliberate. According to him: “Many trees in the forest are very old and tend to fall during windstorms. These are sold through an auction.” He believes that trees which fell in windstorms, being transported for auction, might have led to a perception among people that the trees are being sold illegally.

Islamabad-based soil science expert Dr. Muhammad Murad is of the view that salinity is a serious problem affecting irrigated agriculture of Pakistan. Improper irrigation practices and a lack of drainage have generally led to the accumulation of salts in the soil in concentrations which are harmful to the crops. The Ph.D scholar says various methods such as growing forests and building underground water channels were used in several parts of Pakistan for desalinisation of underground water. “Protecting forests and growing more trees is not only necessary to fight climate change but it is also essential for the very growth and survival of our crops,” he believes.

Tahir Rasheed is CEO of the South Punjab Forest Company (SPFC): a not-for-profit public sector company established by the Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries Department of the Government of the Punjab to seek private investment for raising tree plantations on unused government land in South Punjab. He says it is very unfortunate that trees are being chopped in a region where forest cover has become extremely important in the face of the smog that hit several parts of the province recently. He also fears it will definitely harm agricultural land in the region.

“Due to an exponential increase in human population, and the conversion of forest lands for agricultural purposes, these lenient government policies have increased human pressure on natural forests,” he explains.

He says the newly devised smog policy by the Government of Punjab urges the creation of woodlands in urban areas to control smog, which can help to improve the micro-climate, protect populations from heat waves and add oxygen to the atmosphere – that eventually leads to rainfall. SPFC’s initiative aims to plant 13 million trees which will lead to carbon sequestration of approximately 5.6million tones. This, it is hoped, will reduce the debilitating smog.

As for deforestation on SPFC’s project areas, he advocates a far more proactive effort. He says his organisation has developed a mechanism to inform its parent department (i.e. the Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries Department) and can call upon law enforcement agencies to investigate the matter and arrest the culprits involved.