Forest fires have caused havoc across KP last summer

Naveed Shahzad

Relentless logging is continuing in the forests of Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, resulting into widespread deforestation and timber from fallen trees is being transported to urban centers for sales.

The illegal logging is taking place with the connivance of forest department officials and timber mafia is chopping down trees like fodder. Forest department figures show that so far 15 forests standing on 15 hacters of land have been chopped in different parts of the district.

Winter in Swat, push the demand for firewood spiraling high which results into chopping of precious trees like pine, deodar, oriental plane and other slow growing trees and the fallen trees are transported to use a firewood for cooking and heating. Some unscrupulous persons even chop down green trees and sell in the market.

Fazal Karim, a firewood dealer in Minogra, the capital of Swat district told TNN that majority of the people in Upper Swat cut firewood from forests while many others also sell them in the market. “Firewood sale prices range from Rs 600 to 800 per maund,” he said. However, regarding the purchase price, he said that they look for the type of wood and offer Rs 300 to 400 per maund to sellers.

He said that majority of firewood sellers were unemployed youth, who chop mulberry, chinaberry and poplar. However, he added that purchase all these woods at the same price.

Unabated deforestation in Swat is happening at such a time when earth is warming due to climate change and environmentalists are asking plantation to combat global warming.  Also Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to impacts of climate change.

Timber Mafia in Chief Minister KP home district

In Matta tehsil of Swat district, curbing activities of timber mafia has just been reduced to hallow claims. Large scale logging is taking place in this area, which is also being smuggled; however, forest officials deny these claims.

Professor Shah Jehan, (not his real name), a local of Swat district told TNN that on November 22 last year, large scale logging took place in the forests of Salatar Chinkarai area of Matta tehsil. He said that trees in compartment no 22 and 24 were openly felled which is very sad.

However, local forest official Humayun Khan denied these reports and said that logging was not taking place in the area.

Abdul Baseer, a resident of Matta said that they have informed the authorities on several occasions about massive deforestation in the area. However, h e said that action was taken on their complaints, which suggests existence of a nexus between both sides.

Locals told TNN that the illegal logging of green trees even did not stopped during the time when Prime Minister Imran Khan was campaigning for planting trees. “Timber mafia is getting stronger in the area while the law becoming weaker with each passing day,” they said.

Floods and Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation programme

After natural disaster hitting the province, the same trite message stating that it would not have happened if public had taken precautionary measures is repeated ceaselessly. However, in reality we do not wake up after such calamities; therefore, we will continue to suffer losses.

In Swat district, the recent floods have washed away large portions of trees planted under the Billion Tree Afforestation programme. Figures show that 12000 spalings were washed away while 512 precious trees have also lost in floods from Madyan, Kalam, Behrain, Ushoo, Matiltant Gabin and other parts of the Swat district.

In August floods, outflow of River Swat was recorded at 243,000 cusecs which was more than double to 2010 floods.

Forest fires in Swat

The months leading to August floods, Swat district reported several incidents of forest fire in several parts of the district, leading to severe damages to the forests.

These fire incidents were reported from Rahimabad, Mingora, Pathane, Koza Bandai, Seagram, Barikot, Abuha, Charbagh, Kabal, Malam Jabba, Ser Teligram, , Mangalor, Marghazar, Kokarai, Jambal, Panhr, Rahmanabad, Kanju township and several other parts of the district which were put down by the rescuers along with police and military personnel.

District administration figures show that 22 incidents of forest fires were reported from across the district during the summer, which resulted into damages to forests spread over an area of 440 hacters.

However, only three incidents of forest fires took place in the government forests while the rest in private or community owned forests.

Similarly, the authorities have arrested at least 40 arsonists for setting fires to the forests while 20 of them were also convicted by courts.

BATP statistics for Swat district

Figures obtained under the KP Right to Information Act 2013, show that a total of 103, 75,000 trees have been planted under the BATP in Swat forest division. The figures show only 1477 trees were illegally felled during 2020 to 2022 in the Swat forest division. The department shows that only 471 trees were burnt during the forest fires.

Similarly, during the same period, 23 people were arrested and convicted for illegal logging while 1,694 others were convicted under relevant legislations.

What experts have to say?

Professor Nafees has been researching on Swat forests for since 1993. His research has documented 20 forest fire incidents in the district from 1993 to 2003and three of them of were fires of international concerns.

He explained that locals set fire to trees to collect firewood while in some cases they try to burn down grasses; however, the fire spreads and turns into a major blaze, devouring large parts of the forests.

“Such fires result into great losses to flora and fauna,” he said. However, he added that only one accused was convicted and fined Rs 4000 for setting fire to forests.

District Forest Offier (DFO) Swat stance

DFO Swat Muhammad Waseem told TNN that department teams investigate incident of forests fires. “We not only arrest the accused but also submit detailed reports in courts,” he said. Besides, he said that in the past several accused have been convicted and fined for setting forests on fire.

The official said that deforestation led to the increased carbon emissions, soil erosion and destruction of plant and animal biodiversity.

Why the forests are set on fire?

Officials said that communities dependent on forests traditionally try to burn dry grass to obtain fodder for their cattle. In addition to this, fires are also used to clear land which at times results into large scale forests blazes.

Fire incidents and audit reports

Last year forest fires in KP and a report of Auditor General of Pakistan have raised several questions over the transparency of the BATP.

KP Forestry department figures show that last year a total of 358 incidents of forest fires were reported in the province including 313 grounds and 34 surface fires.

The figures show that 43 percent of the forest fires were reported from private forest, 26.9 percent from protected forests, 13 from community owned and 7.8 from restricted and 6.3 percent from guazara forests.

Both the land and trees of the restricted forests are owned by the authorities while guazara forests are owned by the community; however, they are administered by authorities while community forests are owned by local community.

The figures also showed that 436 hacters of BATP plantation were affected due to the forest fires and this translates into 1077 acres of land.

On the other hand, several irregularities have also surfaced in the BATP and AGP audit report pointed out irregularities amounting to Rs 3.49 in the flagship project.

Chief Minister KP stance on deforestation

KP chief minister Mahmood Khan during his recent visit to the Swat told reporters that illegal logging will not be tolerated. He directed the officials to ensure implementation of directives regarding the illegal logging.

Besides, he said that negligence to curb tree logging will not be tolerated and strict action will be taken against those negligent officers.

Losses due to forest fires in KP

Official figures show that a total of 18,859 acres of forest land was affected due to the forest fires. This includes 6315 acres of private forests, 6301 acres of community forests, 2880 acres of protected, 2472 acres of restricted and 824 acres of guazara forests have been affected.

In addition to this, only 38 out of 358 incidents have taken place due to the natural causes while 64 others due to people setting fire to the forests, including those started by tourists.

However, the department has no information regarding causes of 256 fires.

Why we need to protect forests?

Dr Akbar Zaib, an environmentalist said that many of the birds have also left Swat for good due to environmental changes taking place after 2010 floods.

He said that militancy, military operations, floods and earthquakes have forced the birds to migrate the district.

Similarly, 60 fire forests have also led to the migration of birds.

He said that about two billion people world over dependent on forests for their livelihood.  Akbar said that they hoped that environmentalists, educators, farmers, landowners and government will take steps to protect the forests from threats in future.

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