Nov 8, 2009

Timber deals

Deforestation is in full swing in Pakistan's NWFP. But the forest department is undeterred by this menace

By Tahir Ali

Pakistan's North West Frontier Province has huge forest resources, which, if fully and efficiently utilised, can fetch billions to the national exchequer.

But officials and experts point out that scientific management and exploitation, vigilant monitoring, protection and participatory management of forests, lifting of ban on felling of old, mature, disease-hit trees imposed by the federal government in 1992, reclaiming of waterlogged and saline areas for forest development and cultivation of more forests are must steps to reverse the tide.

Pakistan has an estimated 4.8 percent of its territory (around 4.2 million hectares) covered by forests. Compared to Japan (36 percent), Sri-Lanka (42 percent), Philippines (44 percent), Korea and Bhutan (50 percent) and Brunei (90 percent), Pakistan's forest cover is very low at 25 percent. In NWFP alone, around 1.3 mh (30 percent) of area is covered with forest -- which is about 17 percent. In 2007, NWFP forests spread over an area of 5 million acres with their biggest concentration in Malakand and Hazara divisions. These comprised deodar, pine, chilghoza, fir, nandar, partal, kail and other trees.

An official of Forest Development Corporation (FDC) said forests can be divided between reserved, protected and un-classed forests (state-owned) and communal and guzara (community-owned) forests. According to sources, out of 5.08 million acres (MA) of forest area in the province in 2007, 0.23 MA were reserved, 1.16 MA were protected and 0.25 MA were un-classed. The communal and guzara forests were 0.12 MA and 1.12 MA in all. Another 1.76 MA comprised private plantation. Besides, the forest area on sides of canals and roads in the province was recorded at 8600 avenue kilometres throughout the province.

There were hundreds of thousands of sheesham trees in different districts especially in Mardan, Swabi and Charsadda. Most were destroyed by the die-back disease and others are at risk. These should be preserved.

Deforestation is the biggest threat to forests. As per official estimate, from 1990 to 2005, the deforestation ratio in the country was recorded at around 2 per cent which meant disappearance of 47,000 hectares of forest resources annually. The deforestation was the highest for coniferous forests in NWFP and Northern Areas. Excessive deforestation caused a loss of approximately Rs 65 billions to the state-owned forests alone, said an expert.

Deforestation is in full swing as the rich want to build luxury villas in Murree and the Guliyat -- and the forest department is indifferent to stop this unlawful trend. There are also wide-spread but unconfirmed complaints of collaboration of forest department with the timber mafia in Hazara and Malakand divisions.

Non availability of gas for domestic consumption is also dangerous for forests. "The government should provide gas to the area as soon as possible. Any delay will be disastrous for the forests. Deforestation is bound to increase as due to increased population, more and more forest wood will be used for construction and heating of homes and hotels," said a Swat dweller.

Militancy has also destroyed around eight percent of forest resources in Malakand which had a forest cover area scattered over about 1.4 million acres.

The forest department has prepared a damage assessment report of loss in area. An official source from the forest department said that about 1 million acre of forest cover had been lost in Malakand division during 2007 to 2009, causing a loss of about Rs 100 billions. "Timber mafia took hold of the situation once Taliban took over the area. Taliban's chief in Swat was a timber dealer himself. During the Taliban's sway in Swat, the forest department officials could not monitor or protect the resources. An unprecedented deforestation campaign ensued in Malamjaba, Miandam, Kabal, Pecuchar and other areas," he said. One could see fallen trees on roadsides in Mansehra, Kohistan and Swat.

The government was clueless till recently as to what to do with the timber recovered from smugglers. Now it has decided to return the confiscated timber to its owners after levying a fine on it.

Minister for Forest and Environment Wajid Ali Khan said the government has not given due attention to this revenue generating natural resource. "Forest guards, scavengers and other officials should have modern equipment such as wireless and sophisticated weapons. They should have modern communication gadgets like wireless system to quickly pass on information. They should have official vehicles for their duties. Their capacity building through provision of modern equipments and training is a must."

Khan said the department also faces shortage of personnel. "A guard has to monitor an area spanning thousands of acres which is anything but possible."

Shahraz Khan, former Forest Minister said there were only 2,200 forest guards to cover the province's forests. "It is but impossible for them to monitor forests under their domain," he reiterated.

A senior forest officer had told the scribe last year that in Mardan there were only 68 guards to cover 729 miles of forest area. "Is it then impossible to monitor and protect trees from the powerful and resourceful timber mafia?" he asked.

Another problem is the meagre funds allocation to the sector. Of Rs 51 billion allocated in annual development plan for this financial year, only Rs 223 million has been allocated to the sector so far. Again, out of Rs 6.6 billion in foreign assistance, only one million rupees is meant for it. Also, as the white paper for the year 2009-10 points out, in the comprehensive development strategy of Rs 583 billions for next seven years, not a single rupee has been allocated to the sector.

It is alleged that the main focus of the FDC is to meet the revenue targets. The FDC official however claimed that it has developed infrastructure in forest zones, ensured scientific exploitation of forests and invested in modern timber harvesting techniques.

Forests earned the cash-strapped NWFP Rs 538 millions, Rs 539 million and Rs 584 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008 respectively. For 2009-10, the revenue target for the sector is Rs 584 million. It could fetch even more if illegal timber harvesting and trade are brought under control.

Official record suggests that about 1.75 million cubic feet (MCF) of timber was harvested in 2007-08. Whereas, in 2003, 8.74 mcf and in 2004, 8.70 mcf -- and in 2005 only 1.6 mcf timber was harvested.

The minister said that a scientific management working plan (SMWP) has been prepared using modern satellite imaging technology. But, he said, it was non-operational at present. "The federal government banned felling of trees in 1992. It should allow implementation of SMWP. This will allow extraction of old, disease-struck and surplus trees from congested parts in the forests. This is vital for saving rest of the trees from diseases. It will also create room for new trees and earn millions for the government."

Khan added that NWFP has a favourable climate for building more forest reserves -- and "we want to increase the forest cover to about 23 percent in the coming years".

He informed that joint forest management committees (JFMCs) had been constituted consisting of officials and local owners. "The JFMCs are fully involved in marking, harvesting and marketing of timber from the communal and guzara forests. The income from timber is divided between the government and local owners at the ratio of 20:80 in Hazara division and 40:60 in Malakand division."

Khan said that there were timber markets at Dargai and Goharabad but both were distant from other parts of the country. "Now we plan to build another timber market near the NWFP-Punjab border. This will make timber deals easier and cheaper and earn more money for NWFP."

Despite all these claims, "Corruption, deforestation, and smuggling of timber are the biggest threats the sector faces," says an official. This must be tackled with first.

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