Forest policy and implementation lacking in Pakistan

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 12, 2013.

Islamabad – In the 1970s, both Pakistan and India came up with needs-based forest policies that turned out to be quite effective in tackling immediate problems.

The felling and marketing of trees in Pakistan were completely left to the forest contractors back then. In the absence of checks and balances, the contractors were involved in rampant overcutting of trees, going beyond the tree quota they had bid for in open auctions.

But the 1975 forest policy devised by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government separated forest harvesting from forest management, clipping the wings of the contractors and empowering local communities which own the forests in some parts of the country.

Across the border, around the same time, India included forestry in its Concurrent List — a list of issues on which both the federal and provincial governments are authorized to legislate, with precedence given to the federal laws.

The action soon led to a national law which established afforestation funds and eventually reduced conversion of forest area for non forest use in India by 90 per cent over 30 years.

This ability of the federal government to enact legislation for protecting and improving forest area was a point of departure for the two forest policies. A point which Pakistani environmentalists and anti-deforestation activists believe has created a dilemma for Pakistan.

Here, forestry was a provincial subject even before the 18th Amendment and now, since 2010, the jurisdictional issues surrounding forests could prevent Pakistan from delivering on its international commitments.

Pakistan is a party to the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+) initiative, which offers to pay cash to developing countries for the carbon stored in their forests. Forests store up to 45 per cent of the world’s Carbon dioxide and are important in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

But the country is required to have national entities for monitoring forests and preventing deforestation to qualify for these benefits. The Ministry of Climate Change could be one such organization. However, it is the provinces that control cutting of trees and movement of timber, at the moment.

The intra-provincial timber movement directly affects forests.

“Deforestation in the high hills of Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu & Kashmir is linked to the huge domestic market of timber at Lahore and Karachi,” Fayyaz Baqir, the director of the Akhtar Hameed Khan Resource Centre (AKHRC) said at a meeting of the senate standing committee on climate change in April.

According to the Punjab Forest Act of 2010, the Punjab Government can set the route through which timber “may be imported, exported or removed into or from Pakistan across any customs frontier as defined by the (Punjab) Government.”

Baqir said this provision is problematic because it allows legally and illegally cut timber to make its way in and out of Punjab, without any care for the overall impact on Pakistan’s forest cover.

Even though forestry was not on Pakistan’s concurrent list before devolution but it hurt the forests. The now-defunct Ministry of Environment had been supporting forestry mega projects in the provinces worth Rs12 billion. The funds were cut when the ministry was dissolved.

Pakistan has forests over only 2.5 to 4.8 per cent of its total area, according to different estimates. But with an annual deforestation rate of around 2 per cent, the country is also likely to miss the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of increasing its forest cover to 6 per cent by 2015.

REDD+ and MDG requirements indicate that forests do not belong to just one province, they are a national concern.

“If mangrove forests are threatened in Sindh, it does not simply remain a Sindh problem,” but falls under the ambit of the country,” Ali Hassan Habib, director general of the World Wildlife Foundation Pakistan, said. “The fate of the forests then falls under the whole country’s ambit.”

But schemes like the Zulfiqarabad city project — which has the power to convert the land use of any part of Thatta district where 90 per cent of Pakistan’s mangrove forests are housed — are outside the federal purview.

Similarly, the ban on timber movement from district Diamer in Gilgit-Baltistan was lifted recently, attracting criticism from environmentalists who fear it would increase the pace of illegal logging.

Moreover, the forest contractors, who made a return in the 1980s through bureaucratic loopholes, have now morphed into powerful timber mafias — often operating with the collusion and patronage of influential locals and politicians.

“The mafias often bribe the local forest guards in their area to illegally mow down trees,” said Khan Muhammad Qureshi, a Diamer native who has been actively campaigning against the Diamer timber movement policy.

“Policies and entities for forests already exist but some things, such as coordination for our international commitments, have slipped through the cracks,” Habib said.

One recommendation from environmentalists is to nationally enforce a law that if an area is declared a forest reserves, activities such as clearing, logging for timber and constructing building in that area would be punishable by law.

The Punjab forest act already has these clauses and the New Murree project, which would have resulted in large-scale deforestation, was shelved because of these provisions.

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