ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One of the world’s largest and most ancient juniper forests in southwestern Pakistan, already stressed by water shortages, faces a further threat as its trees are cut down for fuel and to clear land for orchards.
Some of the trees in the juniper forest in the picturesque Ziarat valley of Balochistan province are believed to be as much as 7,000 years old. The forest covers an area of around 280,000 hectares (700,000 acres), of which around a third belongs to the state.
Protecting forests is crucial to curbing extreme weather and other problems associated with climate change, as trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. But persuading local residents not to fell them is difficult due to the profits to be made from selling timber, and because many people lack other sources of energy to heat their homes and cook food.
“We know the forest is an asset and we really want to protect, it but unfortunately we don’t have any alternative to firewood,” said Muhammad Hashim, a resident of Baba Kharwari, a village 8 km (5 miles) from the town of Ziarat.
Hashim, 55, is the only breadwinner for the 15 members of his family. He owns a 5-acre tract of land in the juniper forest, and to make ends meet he sells the trees to a local “mafia” that trades timber illegally.
“If the government provides me with an alternative source of income, I would stop cutting down the trees,” he said.
His wife and four daughters also help him to fell the trees and sell them to locals as firewood.
“We earn around 10,000 rupees ($100) by selling one tree, and this is all we have to rely on,” said Hashim’s wife, who asked to remain anonymous.
Demand for wood soars in the winter as there is no other way to heat water or homes when temperatures plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
“People in Ziarat and adjoining areas cannot survive without firewood in the winter,” she said. “Trees are important to people who live in cities with all basic facilities.”
According to official data, Pakistan has total forest cover of 4.4 million hectares, and the current rate of deforestation is 27,000 hectares per year. The main drivers are the country’s growing population and the associated demand for wood, as well as weak governance and land encroachments.
It is illegal to cut down juniper, whether the land is publicly or privately owned. Government officials declined to give an estimate of the amount of juniper forest being cleared each year.
Ziarat resident Samiullah owns 12 acres (about 5 hectares) of land that was once covered with juniper. But he has cleared roughly 7 acres and converted it into a fruit orchard, using the money from the sale of 200 trees to buy fruit trees.
“I have planted apple, cherry, plums and peach trees ... as it is more profitable than selling the juniper trees,” he said.
“The juniper tree is useless to me. Last year, I earned some $7,000 by selling cherry, apple and other fruit in the local market.”
Samiullah plans to convert his remaining 5 acres to fruit orchards by the end of this year, even though he will fall foul of the law.
“If one is greasing the palms of the forest department officials, then nobody dares to stop you cutting down the trees,” he said, sidestepping the question of whether he had paid a bribe himself.
LESS WATER, MORE DISEASE
Pakistan’s forestry sector contributed $1.3 billion to the economy in 2011, approximately 0.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to Global Forest Watch, a monitoring initiative run by the World Resources Institute.
It says 53,000 Pakistanis are directly employed in the forestry sector, while the country has 213 million metric tonnes of carbon stocks in living forest biomass.
According to UNESCO’s International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere Programme, Pakistan’s juniper forest is believed to be the world’s second largest such reserve.
The problems facing the forest are ecological and environmental as well as economic. Fakhar-e-Abbas, a scientist at the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, says juniper trees are being infected with fungus and bacteria due to inbreeding.
“The trees are located in an isolated place and fast losing their genetic diversity,” he said. It is important to strengthen the trees’ immunity to protect them from diseases and the negative effects of climate change, he added.
“We are working on a plan to exchange some trees with central Asian states to ensure cross-breeding in the forest,” he said.
Syed Ali Imran, Conservator of Forests in Balochistan, said Ziarat used to get snowfall for two to three months each year, but this has now shortened to just a few weeks.
“As a result, the juniper trees now receive less water, and this is impacting their health negatively,” he said.
JOBS NOT LOGS
People’s dependence on the forest as a resource is rising with the growing population, Imran added.
“The government should focus on increasing the literacy rate in the area, so that youth could get jobs in the cities”, decreasing local reliance on the forest, he said.
Imran suggested the government should also try to reshape the economy by creating tourism spots in the area.
“If people start earning from tourism, they would help the government protect the forests for their benefit,” he said.
Khudai Rahim Ejbani, secretary for forest and wildlife in the Balochistan provincial government, admitted that people are chopping down the juniper trees and using forest land for agriculture and orchards, even though the government tries to stop them.
“If there had been no threat to people from government officials, they would have denuded the whole forest land in six months,” he said.
Nonetheless, Ejbani acknowledged that some forest officials are also involved in cutting down trees. “We have suspended dozens of forest officials so far for bribe-taking and dereliction of duty,” he said.
The provincial government plans to strengthen forestry laws, Ejbani added.
In Ziarat, Samiullah believes the forest can be saved only if the government provides jobs for local people.
“The trees may be an asset for the government and international organisations, but for the locals they are (just) a source of livelihood,” he said.
Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com