Dawn News

'Father of Mangroves' fights for Pakistan's forests

In this photograph taken on October 27, 2011, Tahir Qureshi, a senior Pakistani environmentalist and advisor on coastal ecosystems with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), looks at a mangrove field along a beach in the Arabian Sea in Karachi. – AFP

KARACHI: It was a brutal kidnap that turned him into an eco-warrior, and 27 years later Pakistan’s “Father of the Mangroves” still lets nothing get in the way of fighting against timber “mafia” and deforestation.

“This is my life. I am very happy with it. The cause is worth living such a life,” Tahir Qureshi told AFP, walking around the sanctuary that he set up in his spare time when he still worked full-time with the forestry commission.

He was captured by a kidnap-for-ransom gang in 1984 while working in the southern district of Dadu, now devastated by floods for two consecutive years.

“They kept me for a couple of days in captivity. But when they knew I was a forest officer they released me without further argument. That inspired me to dedicate my whole life for the rehabilitation of our ecosystem,” he said.

“The robbers released me as they respect those who respect forests. Trees provide them best hideouts.

“Besides, they are among many people who consider chopping trees as a sin because trees provide us livelihood and help better the environment.”

For years, it was a lonely if mighty cause, for apart from Afghanistan, in the grip of a 10-year war between Taliban insurgents and American troops, no other country in Asia suffers from a faster rate of deforestation than Pakistan.

In 2010, it was declared a forest-deficient country because just 2.2 percent or about 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of its land mass is forested.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Pakistan lost an average of 42,000 hectares of forest a year between 1990 and 2010.

At the current rate, Pakistan could lose half its remaining forest cover over the next decade or so, says the FAO. The trend has been exacerbated by recent floods, the worst in the country’s history in 2010 and a repeated bout this monsoon season.

Qureshi has helped rehabilitate 30,000 hectares of mangrove along the southern coast on the Arabian Sea, including in Baluchistan, one of Pakistan’s most violent and inhospitable areas, home to Taliban militants and a separatist uprising.

Today he is a senior advisor on coastal ecosystems with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

He starts almost every day with a visit to the mangroves, which he calls his kids, on Karachi’s Sandspit Beach. Wearing a khaki shirt and trousers, he wades into the swamp up to his waist to see how they’re getting on.

“We are historically a forestry-deficient country, but with the course of time the ratio has reduced alarmingly,” said the 65-year-old Qureshi.

So who is to blame? There are the timber “mafia” who hack away at mangroves and trees, trucking wood off to market by donkey and vehicle to sell as fuel, while the military and government officials are also accused of involvement.

“The current rate of deforestation is very alarming. We could lose our timber completely in two to three decades if not effectively checked,” an environment ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Hussain Bux Bhagat, a conservationist associated with the Sindh provincial wildlife department, says wildlife in the riverine forest, including birds, reptiles and mammals, also suffered severely because of deforestation.

“Particularly high numbers of grey partridge, which nest on trees and don’t leave its habitat have died because of continuing deforestation and last year’s floods,” Bhagat told AFP.

In 1947, when Pakistan was created from the ashes of British colonialism, riverine forests lined the banks of the Indus River.

They were the first line of defence against floods that have deluged the plains annually for thousands of years, as well as against shoreline erosion. Instead, the deforested areas are prone to flooding and landslides.

But riverine and mangrove forest represent only 20 percent of the forest cover in Pakistan — the rest is concentrated in the mountains of the northern provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit and Baltistan and Kashmir.

There, officials, aid workers and residents accuse the authorities and the Taliban of being hand in glove with mafias cutting down trees.

The Swat valley was once the most popular tourist destination of the country before a Taliban insurgency began in 2007. After a major operation, the army declared the area back under control in July 2009.

But conservationists say tens of thousands of pine trees have been cut down, both during the Taliban years and under the military.

A former Forest Development Corporation (FDC) official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said timber felling was one of the main causes of the devastation witnessed in Swat during the floods of 2010.

“Three kinds of actors participated in that: the FDC working for timber mafia, local people and the Taliban, who cut a lot to buy weapons,” he said.

“There are two kinds of timber mafias: the big ones, with a licence, and the local ones, people with no licence who bribe guards.

Numerous local residents said army trucks are seen transporting timber, but army spokesman Colonel Arif Mehmood in Swat told AFP he was “not aware” of the practice.

Others say the rate of deforestation has improved since the army restored control over the valley in July 2009. No department can provide statistics.

The Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a think tank, has also pointed to links between the timber mafia and Islamist militancy.

“Being shrewd investors, the timber mafia is believed to have spent part of its dividends to sponsor militancy. Huge sums are involved in the business, which has expanded to the hills bordering Afghanistan,” it said in a 2009 report.

“They invest money and energy in Talibanisation, that is how they protect their illegal businesses at the expense of the state’s writ.”


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Comments (24) Closed



Ehsan
Nov 10, 2011 01:39pm
Great work by Mr Tahir Qureshi.
Zofeen Ebrahim
Nov 10, 2011 02:03pm
Qureshi sahib is indeed a rare breed. His enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge unparalleled.We are indeed indebted to him.
Syed Owais
Nov 10, 2011 02:55pm
Great work and effort by Tahir Sahab, my 'Salam' to you. On another note, I would like to ask 'Dawn' to take a step further and help not only report the issues, but suggest some solutions as well. I know you are not the Govt. But taking one step further, when no one is talking about solution, will certainly help and you never know, someone might take up the suggestions. for e.g. in this report, how can we as common people help Mr. Tahir and his team? Btw, I really appreciate 'Dawn' effort in highlighting these unsung heros to public, as no other newspaper is bringing positivity to the environment. Thanks :)
Asghar Ramzan
Nov 10, 2011 03:07pm
I had an opportunity to coordinate and interact with him as EDO Planning and finance in District Gwadar. surely he is the father of mangroves.last time we I met him, he was disparately trying to save the mangroves in coastal villages Gwadar when 2010 flood uprooted many of them. Goog Work dear. Asghar Ramzan,London
Sameer
Nov 10, 2011 05:37pm
It is good to read about the people with good heart, even the situation is difficult and no support from the state Mr. Qureshi keep on saving mangroves. Thanks for writing this article and Great work Mr. Qureshi, Jazak Allah Khair
Erfan
Nov 10, 2011 06:25pm
Good job done by him over the years and youth needs to be educated on the subject and its importance emphasized at all levels in each instituition
Dr Wequar Ali Khan
Nov 10, 2011 07:38pm
Dedicated work by Dr Qureshi indeed.There are very few like him in Pakistan.He is a one man crusade.But Pakistan needs to days Ghazi Salahuddins to fight its case with a corrupt govt. Let us all pray that soon it can happen
Naeem Husain
Nov 10, 2011 07:40pm
Keep up the good work Mr. Qureshi! Pakistan need professional people like you. Your work not only protect our forest but will provide job apportunity and traning to the ppople of Pakistn regardless their ethnic background. This will bring prosperaty to every family in Pakistan collectively. This effort will give fruit. This is a step in the right direction.
A. Khan
Nov 11, 2011 01:08am
These are the type of people we need more of in Pakistan. Selfless, dedicated and sincere in their work.
Maria khan
Nov 11, 2011 06:44am
The forest officers are the ones who are in cahoots with the three other actors.no one can cut trees with out the blessing of these officers.
Shazia Ansari
Nov 11, 2011 07:37am
Great work. People like Mr. Tahir Qureshi help me continue with my dream of Pakistan being a developed country. Is there anyway I can help him in this great cause? I hope someone reads this message and gives me Mr. Tahir's contact info. Regards
mehar ali
Nov 11, 2011 08:09am
Why can't we organize local campaigns to plant trees in our neighborhood? Every block should raise funds and give the responsibility to the group leader to buy the trees and get them planted? May be such campaign can start from schools and colleges also. Something has to be done about this. No wonder weather is getting extreme in every sense in Pakistan.
Dr. Abdul Raoof Khan
Nov 11, 2011 08:10am
I salute Mr.Qureshi .Iadmire his noble work . But there is lot be done .I have seen deforestation of Pirowala forest in Khanewal Dist, Azad Kashmir and Sawat .one time Army was involved in it .Please do something to restore and stop the trees distruction .
Kamran Zaki
Nov 11, 2011 02:15pm
Bless you Mr Qureshi. I want to help you with your work. Dawn great work by your team to bring forward such people and good things that give hope to this nation. Can you please always provide contact details of people who can use help from our 'Awaam'. You will serve the nation better that way.
Aamir
Nov 11, 2011 04:57pm
Ma mannnn
Jan Muhammad Soomro
Nov 12, 2011 08:44am
He has remained vitimized more than once. Once he was kidnapped in Dadu. Two times, his new vehicles were snatched and he was deprived from his new purchased cars at Karachi.
Muhammad Moosa Rind
Nov 12, 2011 10:41am
Well done! Qureshi Sb, you deserve all kind reward, appreciation and great honors in society because your living to manage society Eco-system! keep it up! our prays and best wishes are always with you!
Mobeen Ahmed Khan
Nov 12, 2011 10:47am
Mr. Qureshi has indeed spent his entire life dedicated to such a noble cause, we really can't thank him enough. Apparently it is a valuable lesson for the younger generation of Pakistan on how to positively contribute to the nation which is in dire need of such an "environmental overhaul". It is with his enormous contribution we shall find guidance on how to increase awareness and ultimately work to conserve the environment of our beautiful country. Thank you Mr. Qureshi.
Sid
Nov 12, 2011 12:36pm
Qureshi sahib deserves our greatest appreciation.What he is doing has been covered in the first sermon of Islam as well,the message being that we should protect trees as a fundamental duty.In the movie "The Message",Anthony Quinn playing the role of Hazrat Amir Hamza covers it very well.
Salman malik
Nov 12, 2011 05:57pm
Well done man..keep up the good work please also start some project for pakistan's wild life and include pakistani Expat community as we are ready to help and promote pakistan's natural resources.
Dr Mohammed Ataur Ra
Nov 14, 2011 09:29am
I appreciate Mr. Qureshi for his devotion. Actually forest department should be abolished immediately but replaced with Forestry commission involving respected and knowlegeable persons. If you want I can help. I am a coastal zone management expert from Bangladesh. You can have my reference from Prof Asghari Bano of Quaed-e-Azam University, Islamabad.
Kashif
Nov 17, 2011 03:44pm
I really appreciate your effort to highlight this issue when no one talks about these days except Politics. My suggestion that besides pointing out the issue, one should also propose a solution as well. Offcourse we do appreciate the work Mr Qureshi is doing but its a duty of every citizen to protect his land. So if he can organise a team of Volunteers to bring awareness among masses or can have a common platform to engage volunteers to work together. Sure I would love to be part of this effort. Thanks
Noman Ashraf
Nov 20, 2011 02:36pm
Sir your work is fabulous May God bless you Any one want to work for environment or related to environment can contact me on nomanashraf98@gmail.com Thanks
SALMAN KHAN
Nov 23, 2011 04:49pm
NICE ONE