PESHAWAR: The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s plan to provide rosewood furniture to millions of children in schools may lead to the depletion of immature shisham trees (rosewood), which are already fighting for survival due to an incurable dieback disease in South Asia, warn environmentalists and people associated with the furniture industry.

The elementary and secondary education department’s plan to provide rosewood furniture worth Rs1.5 billion for schools during the current financial year has generated a debate about the future of the species.

Approximately, the government will spend Rs7 billion on the plan in next three years.

Under the plan, every child will have a chair in more than 28,000 public sector schools across the province.

Environmentalists and market sources say the procurement of shisham wood runs contrary to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek Insaf’s tsunami tree campaign under which the government is spending around Rs15 billion on planting one billion trees in the province by 2018.

They fear the mandatory procurement of shisham will ultimately result in the cutting of immature trees as the required volume of seasoned wood for supplying a large number of chairs is not available in the market.

Environmentalists fear procurement of rosewood to make chairs will cause cutting of immature trees

Officials of the elementary and education department, however, argue it is binding upon the government to procure the furniture made of shisham wood only for government schools in the province.

They contradict claims the treated wood of shisham for making furniture is not available in the market and suppliers could manage to acquire the required volume of wood.

“The department can’t violate the procurement rules 2014 and will purchase only rosewood furniture to schools,” said Qaisar Alam, additional secretary of the department.

He said a committee of experts had declared the rosewood furniture durable and cost effective compared to the medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

“The market price of shisham wood is between Rs1,500 and Rs2,500 per square foot, while the cost of imported beech wood is around Rs3,000 per square foot,” he said, adding that the department’s top priority was to provide chair to every child in schools.

Mian Jafar Sadiq, who is running a campaign for the conservation of shisham, raised serious reservations about the large-scale procurement of rosewood for manufacturing chairs, which, he believed, would result in the chopping of young trees.

“Allocation of Rs1.5 billion for purchasing rosewood furniture requires a whopping 3.6 million square feet treated wood,” he said, adding that such a huge volume of seasoned wood was not available in the market.

“I don’t contest the quality and durability of treated rosewood. My apprehension is that suppliers will ultimately purchase raw and untreated wood of shisham from the market to meet the demand. That will be disastrous for shisham trees,” he said, suggesting import of timber for local consumption.

Keeping aside the controversy about the availability of the required volume of treated rosewood in the market, officials of the forest department and a senior researcher of the Pakistan Forest Institute agreed that the population of shisham tree, which was a farm forest, was shrinking rapidly because of its demand in the country and abroad as well as the dieback disease.

“Certainly shisham is under threat because of the disease and researchers have yet to detect causes of the disease,” a PFI researcher told Dawn requesting not to mention his name because he is not authorised to comment on the subject.

“The best option is to reduce import duty on timber to reduce pressure on domestic forests, both natural and farm forests in the country.”

An official of the forest department also acknowledged that shisham tree imported from Nepal was under threat due to the disease and that the plant was rapidly depleting.

He said shisham tree grown in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar was becoming an endangered species.

Another official of the forest department told Dawn that shisham was disappearing in Mardan and Swabi districts, the main region for growing the species in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa due to the diseases and market demand.

He said around 4,000 square feet treated shisham wood was available at the department’s own depot in Mardan.

The official said the department had another depot in Bannu.

He said farmers grew shisham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and that the planned forests of the species did not exist.

The official said local buyers purchased rosewood from Punjab.

Additional secretary of the department Qaisar Alam was of the view that some people, who had business interests, exaggerated figures as one chair needed 30 per cent rosewood and 70 per cent steel for its making.

“The lifespan of shisham wood furniture is more than 20 years, while the MDF furniture hardly lasts five years,” he said.

“Millions of square feet rosewood is available in Bannu and other parts of the province,” he claimed, adding that the purchase of timber from the local market would save huge foreign exchange.

The people associated with the furniture industry dispute his claim, however.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2015