Whither Swat’s Paradise - II

Adil Zareef on what authorities need to do about the alarming levels of environmental degradation in Swat

Whither Swat’s Paradise - II
There are numerous factors that give rise to this horrific destruction of forests in Swat and one can summarize these as follows.

1.) The number of forest guards is alarmingly low and they lack any effective mobility. It is impossible to properly guard the forest area. I have learned that for every two compartments of the forest there is only one guard.

2.) A majority of the Forest Officers and other officials enjoy the patronage of powerful politicians who have links with the timber mafia

3.) There is no one to guard forests during the night: the local timber mafia is dangerous and they can even kill guards.

In a forest, Kalam

4.) There is no proper coordination between the local communities and the forest department. In many cases, members of the local forest communities are involved in the timber business. Higher authorities and officials simply do not bother to visit or patrol the forests.

5.) The attention of forest officials has been diverted completely from the protection of natural forests into attainment of the “image making” targets such as the Billion Tree Tsunami (BTAP) and the newly started 10 BTAP project.

6.) The natural forests in these high hills are simply not valued enough for their multiple ecosystem functions.

These forests are now managed by the Forest Officers in an isolated manner and thus pilferage is easier. Just a few decades ago, it was not possible even for forest officers to take a single piece of wood from these forests, when certain dedicated officers of the Forest Department had involved the local communities through Kalam Integrated Development Project in the co-management of the forest resources.
The attention of forest officials has been diverted completely from the protection of natural forests into attainment of the “image making” targets such as the Billion Tree Tsunami (BTAP)

According to Swat Forest Department, a total of 132,537.93 hectares of land are covered with forests in the district, making 24.64 percent of the total land cover. These constitute an effective carbon sink but are fast shrinking owing to the highly organized timber mafia.

Environmentalists will have to find ways to take urgent action as climate change is knocking at our door.

Fazal Khaliq says:

“As a first step to check deforestation, the government should hire enough guards with a proper monitoring system and protection. Local forest communities must be activated. The committees must comprise young, educated and untarnished individuals. Regular patrolling must be conducted by the forest officials to monitor illegal activities. Above all, there must be an effective mechanism to monitor illegal cutting during the night time when major illegal cutting and smuggling are carried out. One must add that the forests of Brazil are monitored through a satellite/GPS system and in this technologically advanced era it is not very difficult. The government can easily develop satellite monitoring to save forests and ultimately save our environment. Why spend billions on plantation-related media hypes of various kinds while ignoring facts on ground!”

He laments the fact that the PTI-led provincial government has failed to introduce a transparent system of monitoring to stop illegal logging of precious trees.

Another forest expert explains,

“The policy makers are now realizing that forests provide a number of ecosystem functions and services. Thus, valuation of the services and functions of different forests is essential to give priority to their protection - as opposed to planting Eucalyptus and other exotic species. The precious forests need protection and the income from ecotourism or carbon crediting through REDD+ needs to be shared with the local communities as an incentive for bearing the cost of conservation. Moreover, a number of protected areas need to be established in these natural forests to save the associated wildlife and to ensure the sustainable supply of various components of biodiversity from these forests. Likewise, the locals of the area should be encouraged to develop a small-scale (sustainable) hotel industry – that would provide for their improved livelihood and decrease their dependence on the exploitation of natural forests.”

In this context an innovative example would be the Pamir Camping Resort, in Bayun, Kalam, which has state-of-the-art tents with all the modern amenities of a comfortable motel, near upstream river Swat, and yet with minimum impact on the surrounding ecosystem. Similar sustainable models with a less adverse impact on the environment need to be adopted by the government.

On a policy level, the use of timber needs to be dissuaded with heavy penalties. Alternative materials such as UPVC (a durable non-timber material) need to be given subsidies and incentives, so as to lure consumers away from timber products. This is already being done in the advanced economies of the West with some success.

As I walk down the Barn forest with a local herdsman and farmer who prefers not to be named, he grudgingly admits to a sense of helplessness that the local community experiences against the influence of the ubiquitous timber mafia.

Why do locals not protest against the malevolent timber business that goes on around them?

Being unlettered, his views regarding such predatory activities are precise and prescient:

“It is not the need of many locals, but the greed of a few powerful individuals which is destroying the local forests.”

He then adds:

“Harr sa kai, Sok ye na kai, da paiso lapara!” (People do anything. Everyone does it, for money alone!).

The writer teaches Public Health at Northwest School of Medicine, Peshawar, and is a founding member of Sarhad Conservation Network. Write to him at adilzareef.az@gmail.com