FOREST royalties are easy money. This is the reason local leaders of forest areas in Lower Chitral have a good rapport with the timber mafia. They sell coniferous forests at very cheap rates with the nice excuse of windfall extraction.
Unfortunately, no one thinks about precious deodar trees which need at least 150 years to mature, but local leaders always prefer money to our future generation.
In Chitral, major issues raised by forest royalties are: environmental, economical and social.
Owing to removal of trees, lush green valleys of Lower Chitral have been converted into barren lands and river beds. Owing to floods, people cannot find clean drinking water during the summer season.
Floods have been destroying valleys of Lower Chitral as well as affecting the whole country for a couple of years. People have become homeless and unsafe because of floods and avalanches in Madaklasht and the Shishikoh Valley caused by improper forest extraction.
Moreover, both local communities and the Forest Department have no control for the free grazing soon after timber extraction from forests. The number of trees is declining continuously, and it is possible that after a decade or so the precious coniferous forests will be abandoned forever like the juniper forests of Upper Chitral.
Forest royalties have never brought any economical improvement in the area. The precious trees are sold out for very cheap prices because local leaders have no idea of the timber value in the market. The prices of fuel wood and timber have increased in value because timber mafias do not sell timber in the local market.
Thousands of cubic feet of extra timber are extracted from forests without information to local villagers.
In addition, in many areas poor villagers do not get a penny from forest royalties while the money goes to landlords who live far away from the affected areas and claim the ownership rights to forest lands. As a result, the direct beneficiaries of forest areas have no sign of economic development, but timber mafias, landlords and local leaders are millionaires and are visible to everyone.
Forest royalties have created social disharmony among local communities in Lower Chitral. First, it created ownership issues within communities.
Certain families claim forest areas as their private properties, while in some areas ownership rights are debated between communities of different villages. So, people spend time and money in different courts to prove their ownership rights to forest lands.
Upon court decisions, people take up guns to protect the disputed forests. Before forest royalties, there were no disputes for forest lands. Therefore, forest royalties are the main source of disharmony among local communities in Lower Chitral.
In brief, forest royalties have created more disturbances in the form of environmental, economical and social issues.
Properties, roads, bridges and other facilities have been destroyed by floods, and local residents have no clean drinking water facilities. In addition, people have been up in arms against each other.
One option for the government is to use the forest royalty to make big hydropower stations in the affected areas and supply electricity at lower rates to local communities to reduce pressure on natural forests.
To do this, Chitralis need sincere politicians and strong government planners to develop strategies for future generations.
SYED NAZIR Chitral