I love forests—especially given that we have so few left in Pakistan. Most of the country is arid and treeless so visiting a dense forest is like watering at an oasis.And just like an oasis, they are few and far in between. I wanted to go to Ziarat to see its famous juniper forests for a number of years, and finally got my chance a few years ago during my LEAD (Leadership for Environment and Development) training. Located around a three hours drive from Quetta, Ziarat is named after the famous shrine that is located there of a local saint called ‘Kharwari Baba’. He is buried around 10 km from Ziarat and is said to have blessed the valley.
It was the British, however, who developed Ziarat into a hill station and made it into their summer headquarters. In fact the Quaid-i-Azam Residency (the rest house where the Quaid spent his last days), was the old residence of the agent to the British Governor General and was built in 1882. It was the first place I went to visit upon reaching Ziarat. We had to climb uphill to reach the metal gates that led to the lush green lawns with graceful chinar trees and flower gardens. The double storey house was even more picturesque than it appears in photographs with its wide verandahs and wooden floors.
I was glad to see that the Quaid’s residency is still in great shape—some say thanks to the juniper wood that was used in its construction. The dry, cool air on the juniper covered hillside was also good for the Quaid as he spent his last days battling lung cancer and trying to hold onto life. I could just picture him sitting on the verandah, staring into the thick forest that surrounds the Residency, contemplating the future. He probably knew he was going well before his time…
Ziarat is also home to one of the oldest and largest juniper forests in the world, located on an area of 171,000 hectares and some of the trees are said to be over 2,000 years old! I was amazed to see the gnarled old branches of these ancient trees—and a drive through a juniper forest is an unforgettable experience. On our field trip to Kharwari Baba’s shrine, all LEAD associates clambered onto the back of a pick-up truck (our coach could not go down the steep mountain side into the valley) and packed together, we drove through the thick juniper forest—the rocky cliffs themselves were a wondrous sight, with these amazing trees somehow clinging onto the crags.
Unfortunately, this fragile ecosystem, called a “living fossil”, is under tremendous pressure. The local population of Ziarat is growing and when we visited the area, people were cutting the trees to use as fuel wood in the cold winters. In 2004, however, Sui gas was finally provided to Ziarat and the situation has gotten better, although not everyone has a gas connection. There has also been less snowfall in the area, so many people don’t migrate in winters like they once used to. They now stay in Ziarat and their numbers are increasing since the hill station was declared a district headquarters. The local Forest Department also complained that they just don’t have enough guards or vehicles to monitor such a huge tract of forest.
The local people living in the forest also have other uses for the juniper wood. They use branches from the trees to build fences for their domestic animals and to thatch their roofs since the wood is impermeable to water. Their livestock is also eating up the ground cover of the forest that includes some invaluable medicinal herbs and trampling on young seedlings (they don’t eat the juniper however). As it is, juniper is an extremely slow growing species—it grows only around one inch in height per year. A 100-year-old tree is considered to be very young. Ziarat’s juniper forest lacks the new generation and it was sad to see its decline.
During our visit, we saw that many of the older trees were falling victim to diseases for which there are no cures. The trees simply had to be cut down to prevent the disease from spreading. The government did not have the resources to protect this large forest—hence the new agreement at that time with the United Nations development Programme (UNDP), which sought to involve communities and the government in conserving and managing the juniper forests in Balochistan. It is really the local people who have to save these forests by protecting them from their own adverse actions. The juniper forests of Balochistan are an ecological and cultural treasure of the country and indeed the world.