Gul Badsha, a 50-year-old, resident of Miadam area of distract Swat -a region of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province- is busy in cutting tree of a forest in mountainous area. He is also collecting dried branches of tress laid on earth. The forest has large number of trees and covered with of various kinds shrubs .
“Almost in the month of December, snowfall starts on the top of mountains of various parts of Swat valley such as Kalam, Otrol, Madian, Behrain Malam Jaba, and later even in Migora, main city and commercial area of Swat valley covers with snow too. If we do not collect timber before the moth of December, then we will certainly face a lot of difficulties while collecting woods for daily use in rainy days and snowfall in winters” said Gul Badsha.
Before snowfall in the area they have to collect timber from these forests to use it in chilly weather for burning to keep their rooms warm and cook food, because they could not mange it during snowfalls, Badash added.
“We realize that these trees and forests are the sole source of natural beauty of this region and because of these forests and scenic view people from across the country and other parts of the world use to visit the valley as well. We do not have electricity and gas here in these mountainous areas and that is the reason we have to cut trees for daily use in winter session” he explained.
Hazer Gul, a 40-year-old social activist belongs to Salampor, a village of Swat district is waiting for some guests in his office with office colleagues. After formal discussion he told this scribe, “This is not the sole reason of deforestation in Swat that poor people use timber for burning purpose, furniture, shelters and other basic needs of life. In 2007, when militancy was on peak in Swat, at start, militants relied on ‘donations’ but later they started deforestation in the region to met their financial needs”
According to official record 46 percent area of lower Swat is forest covered area, while the ratio of forests in upper swat is 86 percent of the total area, he mentioned, further said that forests in lower Swat including Najigaram valley, Karakur pass and Elum are less in size as compare to the upper Swat’s forests.
“The officials told us that 25 percent forest has been decimated during militancy in upper Swat. We talked with elected representatives of the previous government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that we (the social activists) want to do rehabilitation of those forests cut by Taliban and timber mafia. Deforestation in Swat still continues because forest department do not take action against those who are involve in this illegal activities. Timber mafia with the help of government officials are cutting trees ruthlessly in Kalam, Behrain, Mata, Sahroo and other areas. The illegally cut timbers are shifted to other parts of the country and interestingly there is no record of such timbers because tax is not paid to the government on it” he claimed.
He said that a tree took 100 years to mature before it can be cut for construction wood, further said that majority of trees felled by militants have not yet reached their maturity state.
“In prevailing deforestation in the valley, powerful people are involved in these immoral activities. Local people cannot even say a single word against them. Few days back one of our activists told me that some government vehicles have been unloaded in Kalam area by local people”.
In Swat many carpenters one could see in Mingora Bazzar and other commercial areas before Taliban regime, but now they have shutdown their local shops, Gul pointed out.
He further said that illegal cutting of forests in different areas of Swat had attracted carpenters to make furniture for those smugglers, adding that those furniture being shifted to big markets in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi.
It is known that people in past used to buy doors, windows and other furniture from Swat markets but now the furniture business is down in the area because the furniture is available in other areas of the country, he mentioned.
“Due to illegal cutting by Taliban and timber mafia the environmental hazards at peak and local community also deprived from economic lifeline as well” he said.
Gul took a deep breath and continued his narration, said that Marghuzar valley has lucrative and thick forests, adding that every night two to three timbers’ loaded vehicles from those forests travelled to Mingora city even they cross several check-posts and Chief Conservator’s office on this rout.
The 2010 floods in Khyber Pakhtunkahwa (KP) was also because of deforestation in Swat and Shangla districts, Hazel Gul said, adding that heavy scale of land sliding being observed in 56 places of Marghuzar valley due to massive deforestation in the area.
A 65-year-old President of Swat hotel association, Zahid Khan, resident of Mingora who has white beard and wears white cloths, brown coat, white local made cap and read local Urdu news in his hujra. In August 2013, some unidentified gunmen attacked him and luckily after severe bullets injuries on his neck and face he recovered, so the government has deployed two police cops for his security. The cops are also present in his hujra at the moment. He is also the executive member of Swat Qumi jirga and Chairman of Public Safety and police complaint commission.
“Swat beauty depends upon its thick and lucrative forests. But unluckily 1969 when Swat state merged in Pakistan and the control of the area handed over to bureaucracy, deforestation started in Swat. There were several forts for police and security forces being constructed during Wali Swat- ruler of Swat- regime they all were destroyed by the local administration just to extract wood for construction purpose” Zahid Khan claimed.
He said that these forests were combined property of villagers so people did not take care of it, adding that the villagers repeatedly were cutting forests for both personal and commercial purposes.
Zahid Khan is also the owner of a forest having almost 12,000 trees in Kabal area of Swat. “This is my personal forest and I try my best for safeguarding of the forest but still people cut trees and branches of trees”.
Fazle Maula, hailing from Swat and has expertise in agriculture and worked on forestry and biodiversity in the valley, said that in Swat 30 percent people depends upon forests and they produce livelihoods for themselves from it, adding that due to these forests one can see springs, water reservoirs and glaciers in this lush valley.
“In Malakand and Swat divisions, we have pines, Dewdar, Cedar and bayar forests in large scale. Before Talibanization in Swat the forestry was in bloom. During militancy in the region smuggler mafia was very active and with the help of militants they smuggled huge quantity of timber to other parts of the country and produce black money. In insurgency because of bomb blasts, land mines and mortar shells fired by security forces and militants, a large number of trees burnt to ashes” he added.
While highlighting the importance of Pashtun built including KP and Nangarhar, bordering province of Afghanistan, said that “The region is hub of biodiversity and I call it the summery of the universe. Different varieties of birds, plants, forests and wildlife from the whole universe exist in this Pashtun built. If we disrupt our jungles so it will certainly effects biodiversity in the region. Once biodiversity affected the whole climate, lifestyle and weather will be changed”.
“In Swat division, 100 aeronautical miles there is a variation of weathers and that is the reason we enjoying four weather in a year. This time snowfall has started in upper Swat while in other parts of KP province the weather is just cold. Due to variation in weathers we have different fruits and vegetables in each session.” he mentioned.
These forests is a hub for honey bees and because of deforestation in Swat the business of honey was badly affected but when the security forces restored peace and imposed ban on firing in the region, honey bees again came back to these forests, he added.
He said that “From Swat to Afghanistan border we have 20 lakh ekar land which is fit for forestation and cultivation. This land is favorable for olive cultivation. The olive roots go in more deep in earth and this way soil erosion and land sliding in the region will be reduced, if government plant olive.
“In Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) water is a big issue for local community. So these plants and trees will store water for next generations” he suggested.
Mir Wali Khan, Divisional Forests Officer Swat, said that during militancy in Swat, the forest department ordered its employees not to perform duties in the field because of worst security situation.
He added that in the absence of proper mobility and checking the militants did deforestation in Malam Jaba, Miadam, Lalku, Shawar, Beha Roringpor and Shahderai blocks of Swat forest division and the total forest damage was 726589 Cft (standing volume) which estimated value was Rs. 72.659 millions.
While rejecting the allegations that forest department has failed to control deforestation in the valley, he said that forest department had established two main check-points in Fizagat and Landaki area of Swat, adding that those check-posts were functional and efficient staffers ware deployed to control illegal flow of timbers.
“In last five to six months we have impounded 15 trucks of timber and recovered fine in millions from those persons who involved in those illegal activities. For the protection of forests we have forest guards in each forest for safeguarding” DFO Swat mentioned.
In past the department had small projects but now a mega project would be started in those areas where deforestation had been made in large scale, he added, further said that the department would plant saplings under the mega project in those areas.