KARACHI: While accusing the government of taking over forest land for sugarcane projects and patronising the illegal occupation of forest land, members of civil society organisations have opposed the recent decision of the Sindh government to allot 9,000 acres of forest land to the army. They argue that it will further shrink the already depleted forest cover and negate the government’s international commitments on nature conservation.
They strongly criticised the lease policy of the government and said it led to large-scale deforestation.
“Ninety per cent of the province’s forest cover has gone and what is left doesn’t meet the international standard of a forest,” said Zain Daudpoto of the Indus Development Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working to uplift poor communities.
According to him, Sindh has about 750,000 acres of riverine and in-land forests (excluding mangrove forests) on paper, of which 90pc of forest land has been illegally occupied by influential landlords and there is no writ of the forest department.
‘All members of society are the owner of forests as they reap benefits from them’
The 2005 lease policy of the government, he says, had proved to be most detrimental. Between 2004 and 2005, when the policy was proposed and approved, influential people uprooted forests and then acquired it on lease.
“Instead of increasing the forest cover and alleviating poverty under the policy, the government has used the forest land to bribe people. It’s only the rich who benefitted from the policy,” he said.
The government, he said, had also amended the lease policy and reduced the plantation limit from 25pc to 20pc and allowed NGOs and the corporate sector to acquire lease of forest land under its amended agro forestry policy.
The government, he said, intended to establish sugarcane zones in Badin, Thatta and Dadu for which it had already acquired 25,000 acres of forest land in the latter two districts.
“We are totally against the lease of forest land after having seen so much misuse of this policy. The government can give some other land to the army instead of giving forest land,” he suggested. This allotment, he added, seemed to be a tactic to bring a bad name to the army, and later be used to justify their support for establishing sugarcane zones.
In 2010, Mr Daudpoto with the help of his colleagues, won a case against the Sindh government that had allowed the conversion of forest land.
“All members of society are the owner of forests as they reap benefits from them. Hence, their ownership can’t be changed or status converted,” he said.
He also expressed the intention of seeking court’s intervention against the move by the government of giving away and taking over forest land.
Seconding his opinion, Nasir Panhwar of Friends of Indus said: “We have come to a point that though there is forest land in the province, there are no forests. The move to allot forest land to the army will also send a wrong message to the international community with whom the government has agreements,” he said.
Highlighting the impacts of deforestation, he said that depletion of forests would further aggravate harsh weather conditions and effects of climate change.
“Our priority should be to conserve and increase the forest cover as we have committed under the convention on biodiversity and Millennium Development Goals,” he observed.
He expressed regret over news reports according to which the government has given large tracts of forest land to influential people after displacing local communities in a bid to support sugar mills.
Land of the outlaws
There are, however, experts who believe that giving the forest land in Shikarpur district to the army for onward distribution to the heirs of martyred soldiers and wounded military personnel is not a bad idea, provided the government ensures implementation of the terms and conditions of the lease policy.
“This area has historically been under the control of outlaws and the government has lost its writ a long time ago. So, giving it to a committed organisation like the army is a good step, if it ensures implementation of the lease term on tree plantation along with agriculture practices,” said former forest and wildlife secretary Shamsul Haq Memon.
Syed Ghulam Qadir Shah of International Union for Conservation of Nature said there was no harm in giving away the forest land to the army if the status of the land was not changed and 25pc tree plantation was done on the land.
“If they grow forests there and protect the land, there shouldn’t be any problem. There is no room for land conversion,” he said.
According to sources, the 9,000 acres is part of the 25,000 acres of forest land that is said to be the largest forest with irrigated plantation. Rangers have recently cleared the area (of outlaws) that, according to an estimate, had claimed the lives of about 300 people including an MNA.
The army’s request for land was for 35,521 acres. The application had been pending for 14 years.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2015