Where have the forests gone?

Since our childhood we have been told that of the total area of Pakistan, 4.5% is under forests, while for any country to have meaningful green cover, it should be around 25%. Well to start with we have been racing against an odd of some 21.5% for which every year millions and millions of saplings are planted by the forest department, but the area still remained 4.5% even after decades of forestation. This is worrisome as one wonders where these billions of planted saplings have gone. Didn’t even a smaller percentage took roots and turned into tree to add to the already scarce percentage of 4.5?

I got a clue to the mystery when I was assigned to carry out forestation on a given 200 acres in an area close to Lahore on the northern side of River Ravi. Before going to the area, I went to the Chief Conservative Punjab for a briefing and was told that the Forest Department had already planted a forest in the area some five years ago and I was only to plug the empty spaces, “if any.” Happy that my task was made simpler courtesy the Forest Department; I went to the area adjacent to a village called Bansi Nagar.

When I reached the area, to my utter horror I saw not even a semblance of forest. Instead the entire area was covered with thick thorny jungle muskets, which were so dense that it was difficult to drive my jeep through (rather I got two of tyres punctured). When I enquired from the local landlord, he showed his total ignorance about any such move by the Forest Department. So that is how got started.

My entire outfit was put on the task of clearing the jungle muskets with the help of dozers obtained from the Forest Department. It took us quite a while to remove the thick jungle of muskets and would daily encounter 5-10 feet long deadly snakes that my men used to kill. Finally we cleared the area, leveled it, make water channels, and dug holes for the saplings of eucalyptus. We also installed a dozen of water pumps for watering the saplings. It took us some three months to finally plant a forest, which still stands with trees reaching some 50-60 feet by now. And is that was not. While by and by we got to know the area, we were told that a sizeable area of the forest land was illegally occupied by an influential landlord and was using it for cultivation. It was with lot of effort that we got the said land vacated and brought inside our jurisdiction.

Having put in so much of effort myself, I find it heartbreaking when I see no change in the overall forest cover of Pakistan. Rather than increasing the area, just today I read a report which claims that the area under forestation has in fact reduced to 2.5% (1,902,000 hectares) in 2010. The report continues to divulge that between 1990 and 2000, Pakistan lost an average of 41,100 hectares of forest per year. This amounts to an average annual deforestation rate of 1.63%. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest change increased by 24.4% to 2.02% per annum. In total, between 1990 and 2005, Pakistan lost 24.7% of its forest cover, or around 625,000 hectares. Measuring the total rate of habitat conversion (defined as change in forest area plus change in woodland area minus net plantation expansion) for the 1990-2005 interval, Pakistan lost 14.7% of its forest and woodland habitat.

This horrific revelation means that our future generations would start from a 2.5% area under forestation as against 4.5% of our times. This is despite the fact that billions of rupees must have been squandered away in the process. Each year the president and the prime minister are seen planting saplings to mark the beginning of the tree plantation drive (held twice a year) and the Forest Department dishes out the same quantity of saplings to God knows who by making a vow to increase the area under active forestation in Pakistan. But the ground realities are far from true than the tall claims of the Forest Department and the green cover is shrinking at a very fast pace.

 Tree plantation requires sincere and dedicated efforts and each sapling is to be cared to rear these into tall trees. But this has not been done and we are witnessing the worst disaster of our times. The recent flash flood are but one factor attributed to rapid pace of deforestation in our northern areas, specially Chitral and Swat, where people are mercilessly cutting trees for warming their houses and kitchens besides using it for furniture.

Unless we tackle the issue on war footings and strict monitoring of the affairs of the Forest Department is undertaken, I am afraid we may soon lose the remaining 2.5% forest cover as well, which will not shatter the already fragile economy of the country, but would also rob us the natural habitat of millions of bird species, some of which are already on the verge of extinction. The deforestation would also erode soil resulting into floods and burning of wood would add to more pollution and harm to environment.

Related Link/Resource Information:

Forestry in Pakistan: Deforestation (Museum of Learning)

PS: The post originally published in The Fire Within