Saturday, January 30, 2010

Deforestation: a threat for ecology of Kashmir

Zafar Iqbal
Yousaf Butt, 56, of Keran village in Neelum Valley at Line of Control in Pakistani Kashmir is worried about his job because of the government decision to ban on the cutting of trees. Yousaf and his colleagues fear the decision would stop the operation of their employer, Azad Kashmir Logging and Saw Mills, (AKLAS) - a semi government firm which deals with the extraction of timber wood from Pakistani Kashmir and its supply to across Pakistan. "Jungle is everything for us. My wife brings fodder and fuel wood and children collect mushrooms from nearby forest", says Butt. He is not aware about the devastating consequences of the ruthless felling of trees in his area, nor do his bosses consider the great loss caused by the depletion of forests. Yousaf and his villagers are glad on rapid melting of the snow as since last few years its level is decreased. So they have to store less fuel wood for winter, compared to previous years when life ceased for months because of heavy snowfall.
According to the State forest laws, government can sale only damaged trees after necessary assessment by forest officials, however, powerful timber mafia under the cover of extraction of sick or fallen trees also illegally chop and smuggle green trees. This act poses a threat to forests ecosystem, and has resulted alarming decline of forest cover of the region. Sometimes, forests are put on fire by timber mafia to justify the damage of trees which also has caused enormous loss to local forests and wildlife habitats. The officials admit that over the last twenty years more than five percent of the forests have vanished.
Located in the North of Pakistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is in the foothills of the Himalayas and plays vital role in the economy of Pakistan. AJK is commonly known as a forestry state which has over 56,700km area , from total 13,297 square kilometres, under the control of local forest department which makes 42.6 per of the land.
This eco-region is a prime location for endangered plant and animal species. The evergreen forests of conifers, locally with some admixture of oak, dry zone deodar; Pinus gerardiana (Chalghoza) and/or Quercus ilex are the main species in these temperate forests. Most of the wood is sold to Pakistani furniture and flooring firms, which make products for consumers in Europe and the United States.
Three main rivers of the region-Poonch, Jhelum and Neelum flow from Azad Jammu and Kashmir towords Pakistan and play a vital strategic role in the economy of the country and livelihood of people as these rivers are constituent of the largest irrigation system of the world which heavily relies on Turbela and Mangla Reservoirs.
With 3.5 million populations, Azad Jammu and Kashmir is a densely populated area with the ratio of 264 persons per Sq Km. More than 88 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and depends upon natural resources like forests for fuel wood, timber, grazing and water. Eighty nine percent of households in AJK use wood for cooking and space heating, 94.1 percent in rural areas and 50.4 per cent in urban areas. 98 per cent of rural population depends on forests for grazing animals partially or completely, while 87 percent completely.
The majority of the income of the area comes from remittances of overseas Kashmiris working mostly in the UK and Middle East, and form of revenue of timber and royalty of Mangla Dam located in southern Mirpur district. The unemployment rate is from 35 to 50 percent. Average per capita income is estimated to range from $ 5000 US to $ 600 US. Besides human loss, natural resources of the region suffered irrecoverable loss during the tragic earthquake of October, 2005 when more than 1000 small and larger landslides damaged a large number of diversified flora and fauna of the region. Officials believe that growing deforestation also escalated the damage to the natural resources. The International Union of Natural Conservation (IUCN) estimates that the damage caused by landslides in lower Neelum Valley of AJK is calculated around PKR 72 million (US$ 1 million) , where as the rehabilitation cost for the damaged forest has been estimated PKR 1 million (US$17 million). Currently, AJK government is conceiving measures of forest conservation to protect the natural resource, including imposing complete ban on cutting of green trees, which was initially enforced in 1997, but unfortunately not implemented because of lack of political will and alleged benefits gained by government functionaries who are accused for corruption and involvement in timber trade.
Similarly, government is facing immense resistance from employees of the AKLAS who believe that implementation of this ban would turn into complete end of timber industry. Local traders have similar concerns about the government measures for conservation. "By imposing bar on the cutting of trees government wants to make three thousand people jobless who earn their daily bread from timber business", fears trader Shafiq Khawaja. On the other hand, environment campaigners and ecologists have hailed the plan and demand protection of forests.
'Plenty of timber wood is waiting for transportation in the jungles and lugging depots since many years, which is enough to meet the public requirements", said Naseer, community worker who suggested that the surplus staff of the disband corporation could be adjusted in forest and agriculture departments. Ecologist Ejaz Rehman says that authorities should do more to clamp down and should continue efforts to stop illegal and unsustainable logging. To shut down institutions is not the solution to control cutting of trees. There should be co-operation among institutions and local people. Best solution is to strengthen and equip institutions both AKLAS and Forest Department.
Forest decline is a complex and tragic disorder. If the government wants to protect forest and vegetation of the area, it should provide alternative fuel resources to the local communities and must enforce international and local forest protection laws to stop this depletion of great environmental heritage. (The writer is a freelance journalist and social activist hailing from Pakistan Administered Kashmir.

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