CHILAS, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nestled on the west side of Pakistan’s Indus River, the remote town of Chilas is notorious for its timber smugglers, who operate freely in the northern district of Gilgit-Baltistan.
“I don’t think any conservation efforts will really save Pakistan’s rapidly shrinking forests as long as the government does not deal with the timber mafia with an iron fist,” said environmentalist Ghulam Ali, who lives in Chilas, 211 km (132 miles) north of Islamabad.
Pakistan’s timber mafia is made up of organised gangs that cut trees from state-owned forests and sell them illegally, often working at night.
Ali said Chilas is now grappling with the consequences of large swathes of denuded forest. It is experiencing warmer summers and winters, fewer rainy days, frequent landslides, a rise in pest attacks on crops and a decline in the bird population, he said.
Some 43,000 hectares of forest are cleared annually in Pakistan, which has the highest deforestation rate in Asia, according the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Each of Pakistan’s five provinces has its own forest laws, intended to regulate forest conservation and timber harvesting according to local needs.
But these are routinely ignored - often with the connivance of rural politicians, some of whom encourage their constituents to clear forest, sell the wood, and turn the land into profitable plots for farming or construction.
Ali said the “ruthless” timber mafia in Chilas operates hand-in-glove with local forest officials and politicians – the reason why it has grown so strong over the years and escaped legal action for cutting down trees.
Local officials dismiss Ali’s charges. “I agree that a few years back, there was illegal tree felling by people - many of them outsiders. But now we have controlled this illegal logging and eliminated the timber mafia,” said Mohammad Saleem, a senior official in the divisional forest office in Chilas. He was unable to provide further details of how this had been achieved.
Khan Muhammad, a local resident and environmentalist, said the town’s forest officials collaborate with influential timber traders from other parts of the country to transport illegally cut logs.
The local timber mafia sells logs to the traders for around 30 Pakistani rupees per cubic feet in Chilas, he asserted. The logs are then resold for 3,000 rupees per cubic feet on the open market in Pakistan.
Forest experts argue that powerful timber gangs are a major obstacle to budding forest protection plans in the South Asian nation.
“How can any initiative for reviving forestation be fruitful, if deforestation at the hands of an oppressive timber mafia goes on unhampered in Pakistan?” asked a former director-general of the Peshawar-based Pakistan Forest Institute (PFI), who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
NEW FOREST FUNDING
Last December, Pakistan succeeded in securing $3.8 million from the Readiness Fund of the World Bank-administered Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF).
The ultimate aim is to restore forest cover that has been lost over the years, and bring new land under tree plantation.
The FCPF money is intended to set Pakistan on that path, by preparing it to implement programmes under REDD+, an international scheme to compensate developing nations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
Pakistan was among eight new countries selected to receive an FCPF grant after Norway pledged $100 million to the fund. The others were Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Fiji, Dominican Republic, Nigeria and Togo.
Jawed Ali Khan, a consultant for U.N. agencies and former director-general of Pakistan’s Climate Change Division who retired late last year, said the division must prove it can use the FCPF funding well.
“The real challenge for the division’s forest officials now is to check deforestation and bring new areas under forest cover to gain the confidence of the international community. Otherwise Pakistan will be unable to win any more foreign funding in other areas, such as water and agriculture for climate change mitigation and adaptation,” he warned.
ROLE FOR LOCAL COMMUNITIES
The Pakistan Forest Institute’s former head said it was “disappointing” that the FCPF proposal submitted by the Climate Change Division did not mention how the government would deal with the timber mafia, which he called “a grave threat to country’s forests”.
Nazakat Ali, a prominent environmental journalist in Gilgit-Baltistan province, blamed a lack of political will to deal with the problem.
“Tackling a handful of timber mafia is not really a daunting task,” he said. “But if these politicians are themselves timber mafia, how can they wage a war against themselves?”
Forest conservationists say international funding alone is no guarantee of success, arguing that creative approaches are needed to save the ailing forestry sector. They point to the success of community-based forest management in Nepal and Vietnam, for example.
“How forest communities are empowered by giving them a stake in forest protection programmes, and how much their sense of ownership is built up will make a difference to the success of the FCPF (in Pakistan),” said Pervaiz Amir, an independent forest ecologist and former member of the Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Climate Change.
Forest officials in the Climate Change Division say they are fully aware of the barriers they face.
“One challenge we are mostly likely to confront…is the powerful timber mafia. But we believe empowering local forest communities and building a sense of ownership among them will translate into a policing role,” said Syed Mahmood Nasir, inspector general for the division’s forest wing.
The hope is that local people will become motivated to monitor and report illegal logging once REDD+ programmes are in place and communities understand the financial benefits they will receive from the carbon credits generated by their own forest protection efforts, Nasir explained.
To that end, the government will focus on building the capacity of indigenous groups to manage forests, as well as providing them with alternative fuel sources and ways of making a living that do not involve cutting down trees, Nasir said.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate and development correspondents based in Islamabad.