If Pakistan’s authorities continued to allow the country’s timber mafia and a benighted and oppressed peasantry to strip the country’s forests at a faster rate than anywhere else in Asia, as is happening, floods of Biblical proportions would be inevitable.
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And so it came to pass – as August began – that heavier than usual, but not unprecedented, monsoon rains fell on the largely forest-denuded northwest Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains and foothills, swelling the mighty 2000 mile-long Indus river, originating in Tibet, and others such as the Jhelum, Swat, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and their many tributaries.
What then happened, reports by Pakistani journalists and environmental campaigners have steadily established, was truly terrifying.
Trees felled by so-called illegal loggers – an infamous “timber mafia” that has representatives in the Pakistan Parliament in Islamabad and connections right to the top of government and the military – are stacked in the innumerable nullahs [steep narrow valleys], gorges and ravines leading into the main rivers. From there they are fed into the legal trade, earning the mafia billions of dollars yearly. “Other than landslides, soil erosion and the occasional homes and crops being swept away, it [the forest denudation] was not considered a disaster and hence didn’t make the headlines,” wrote Ayesha Tammy Haq, a columnist with the Pakistan daily Express Tribune newspaper.
But the deforestation and other actions of the timber mafia were ticking time bombs waiting for a trigger to set off explosions.
This year’s monsoon lashing northern Pakistan with unusual intensity would historically have been absorbed by extensive forests, much like multiple layers of blotting paper, allowing the rains to run off more sedately than in modern times.
But this month the mud and water deluge cascaded off the tree-bare mountains and hills with exceptional force and barrelled down towards the plains in mammoth fury. In a trade-off, the timber mafia had allowed the mountain poor to raid the logs stacked in the nullahs to make doors, window frames and furniture for their homes. But, propelled by the force of the run-off, the logs turned into instruments of destruction, smashing all in their wake. Rivers and dams turned black with timber. Relief workers said bridges, homes and people were destroyed and swept away by the hurtling and swirling logs before the waters spread on to the plains below, engulfing an area of more than 60,000 square miles, more than twice the land area of Scotland.
The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that some 8000 schools were either destroyed or partially destroyed by the torrents.
It is not only the mountain forests that have been devastated. When Pakistan became independent from Britain and separated from India in 1947, thick riverine forests lined the Indus on its thousand mile journey across the plains.
“These forests used to absorb the ferocity of the floodwaters,” said Tahir Qureshi, a Pakistan-based forestry expert for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“The riverine forests were the first line of defence against the raging floods [which have inundated the plains annually for thousands of years]. They have been cut everywhere from Murree [a hill station on the Jhelum River before it fans out onto the plains] to lower Punjab [in the heart of the plains] to upper Sindh [the province where the Indus flows into the Arabian Sea via a massive delta].”
Just before this year’s monsoon broke over Pakistan, local journalists reported that a landlord, a leading member of the plains branch of the timber mafia, had sent in hundreds of employees, equipped with guns and heavy machinery, to chop down thousands of trees in one of the most important remaining riverine forests in Sindh, the Khebrani and Rais Mureed Forest along the banks of the Indus.
Despite a ban on the cutting down of forests, local journalist Salam Dharejo reported that the landlord, with support from top forestry and environmental protection officials, established a camp for his labourers “and within two nights cleared 180 acres of forest land by chopping down 90,000 trees”.
Dharejo continued: “As a consequence of political interventions, the corruption of forest officials and the nexus between land grabbers and the timber mafia over the last 25 years, the riverine forests of Sindh are on the verge of extinction … They have been ruthlessly exploited by the law enforcement agencies, politicians and bureaucrats for their own vested interests. Policemen took bribes from the timber mafia in return for allowing them to fell trees.”
Dharejo quoted a forest department official as saying of the Pakistan government’s much trumpeted reforestation strategy: “You will not find a single fresh forest. The reforestation exists only on paper, while on the ground you will find ruthless deforestation. Forestry officers are involved in unauthorised wood-cutting and issuing of unauthorised passes for the transportation of forest wood and disposal of government machinery.”
Ghulam Hussain Khoso, a cattle herder resident within the Khebrani and Rais Mureed Forest, said: “I have been born and brought up here. Over time I have seen the rapidly decreasing size of the green patches. I do not trust that the forest department will ever improve forest conditions. The dacoits [traditional fabled bandits] were better custodians of the forest than the forest department itself. The thick forests served as a hideout for the dacoits: therefore they protected them and did not allow anyone to destroy them.”
Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely circulated English language daily newspaper, said 80 million trees had been chopped down in the “protected” Khebrani and Rais Mureed Forest in the three years before the floods inundated the plains this month. In just 36 months the forest had shrunk from nearly 20 square miles to barely three square miles, causing serious damage to the environment and hurting the livelihoods of local herders, like Ghulam Hussain Khoso, whose ancestors had grazed their livestock in the woodlands for generations without devastating the ecosystem.
“The claims and slogans of officialdom are completely divorced from reality,” said Dawn in an editorial. “The government is promoting ‘Green Pakistan’ even as trees continue to be slaughtered across the country in the name of development. The timber mafia is denuding the country’s woodlands. The situation is desperate and is deteriorating by the day.”
Some 900 miles to the north, in the mountains north of Murree, the story is similar. In the Ayubia National Park – legally a government-protected forest – the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported, before the current flooding happened: “The forest is disappearing fast, threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people.”
A forest official, quoted by the UN agency on condition of anonymity, said government officials were encouraging the forest mafia to extract trees from the Ayubia Park. “The first major illegal tree-felling took place in 1988,” said the official. “About 400,000 cubic feet of forest wood was illegally cut in that year, and one million cubic feet was extracted illegally in the next three years. Huge fellings continue.”
The official said the government allowed the illegal timber to be exported to other provinces without a fine, which encouraged the timber mafia to cut down ever more trees knowing it had political clout. “The government did begin to fine fellings, but the fine was so small that it encouraged the timber mafia instead of discouraging them,” the official added.
By 2005 Pakistan had lost 25% of the forest cover that existed in 1990. Experts predict at current rates of exploitation – more than 100 square miles of trees clear-felled annually – the remaining forests will all be gone by 2010. It means this year’s catastrophic floods will be repeated again and again, and all the aid in the world will do little good until someone, somehow, begins a reforestation programme. As John Muir, the great Scottish naturalist, once said: “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”