By Roshan Din Shad
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (AlertNet) - Kashmir’s ancient forests are coming under growing pressure, as economic hardship drives families to cut them down for fuel and construction, while government funding for tree-planting programmes is slashed.
Around 3 million trees will be planted under the state’s annual reforestation campaign for this financial year, which ends in June, compared with 10 million in 2007-08.
Raja Khizar Hayat, chief conservationist for forests in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, told AlertNet the programme had received just one third of the funds usually allocated for reforestation and forest preservation, due to the effects of a financial crunch.
For the past two years, the cash-strapped central government in Islamabad has cut funding for the self-governing region to the north, called Azad Kashmir in Pakistan, to bridge the gap between its revenues and spending.
“We used to plant up to 10 million trees in this season (spring) every year until 2008 on 20,000 to 25,000 acres of forest and private lands, but now the situation is very grim given the lack of funds,” Hayat said.
Scientists say cutting down forests on a large scale can contribute to changes in local climate patterns, including warmer temperatures and shifts in precipitation.
“Lack of reforestation in the face of fast depletion will contribute to climate change, as plants keep the environment cool and clean, and springs flowing, as well as protecting land from erosion,” Hayat said. “There must be as much reforestation as deforestation.”
Kashmir is well-known for its lush forests, but they are increasingly threatened by rising demand for wood used for construction, fuel and other business purposes, as well as timber smuggling.
The government has been clearing forested areas to build roads, schools, hospitals and community graveyards, Hayat said. Forest land is also being used for residential purposes, he added.
Kashmir’s forest department provides timber for housing construction at subsidised rates, as well as selling it commercially at market prices. It is the state’s third largest source of income.
Hayat said timber smuggling is growing due to discreet backing by politicians and weak implementation of anti-smuggling laws.
Perpetrators use their influence with ministers and government officials to secure the release of wood and vehicles confiscated from illegal loggers. These are sold on for a large profit in other parts of Pakistan, where wood is scarce.
Forests account for only 2 percent of Pakistan’s total land area, although the government has set am ambitious target of a 1 percent increase from 2000-2015.
“(Forest) department officials are equally involved in illegal forest cutting and smuggling,” said Abdul Waheed Kiani, a local journalist who reports on forest issues.
In Kashmir, the forest department has launched a census to determine the exact number, classification and ages of trees in the region’s shrinking forests, which will be completed in 2015.
Figures point to a decline in forest cover since 1947, when Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan at the time of partition of the subcontinent under British rule. Back then, trees covered 32 percent of Azad Kashmir.
In the last 15 years, its forests have dwindled by 2 percent, now covering around 27 percent of the region’s total land area.
The forest department controls 42.6 percent of Kashmir’s land. According to its statistics, the prescribed annual timber yield is around 6.7 million cubic feet, whereas demand runs at 7.7 million cubic feet per year, leaving a gap of around 1 million cubic feet.
POOR DEPEND ON WOOD
Of the population of Azad Kashmir, 88 percent live in rural settlements either on or close to forest lands. Because of their proximity and high levels of poverty, local people depend on the forests for income, timber for construction, firewood and cattle fodder.
“How we can survive without burning firewood all day in such a harsh winter with temperatures dipping below minus when snow falls, when we do not have any alternative to wood?” asked Tahir Raheem, 28, a doctor and resident of Chakothi, the region’s northernmost village.
Raheem, who heads a local welfare association, said nearby forests would be spared if the government provided subsidised gas to the villagers.
Muhammad Saddique, 49, a labourer who lives in the village of Chinari, said he did not know how else to keep warm, as he shoved firewood into his ceramic stove.
But getting it is no easy task. Men and women from the village must walk several kilometres to gather wood because the local forest is receding.
“It took four hours to bring this wood home from the ‘jungle’,” said Saddique. “There is no choice for me but to do this drudgery to get firewood.”
RISING GAS PRICES
Abdul Hameed, an LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) dealer in Muzaffarabad, said calls to protect forests would be ignored unless the government offers subsidies for gas and kerosene oil for cooking and heating, and alternatives to wood for construction.
LPG prices have soared this winter as demand rises, he said, putting it out of reach for many consumers. Last year, an 11 kg cylinder cost 1,800 rupees ($18), but this year the cost has increased to PKR 2,150 ($22), he explained.
As a result some people are forced to depend on wood, and others have adopted illegal practices such as stealing electricity, Hameed said.
Muhammad Awais Sowati, a timber trader in Muzaffarabad, said even city dwellers are turning to wood.
“People are forced to use wood due to (fuel) price hikes in the city area where traditionally gas, charcoal and kerosene oil are used for heating and cooking,” he said. Timber is cheap in comparison, and sales are booming, he added.
Timber factories are also doing good business in the fast-expanding state capital, as wood is in demand for roofs, doors, windows and interior decoration.
In remote areas, houses and shops are made entirely of wood, including their walls and bases. Timber is also used for walkways, bridges and fences.
Environmental expert Aftab Alam, who is working on a hydro-power project led by a Korean engineering firm, argued that Kashmir’s forest cover will only start to expand again if communities become more involved in developing and preserving natural resources in their local environment.
To achieve that, they must be made aware of the importance of protecting forests, and given other options to build and heat their homes, he suggested.
“Deforestation cannot be controlled unless alternatives to wood for construction and firewood are provided to the people,” he said.
Roshan Din Shad is a freelance journalist based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.