PLANTED against expert advice over a decade ago, the exotic Conocarpus today makes its presence felt on almost every road of the city.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
PLANTED against expert advice over a decade ago, the exotic Conocarpus today makes its presence felt on almost every road of the city.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: As the campaign against a widely grown tree in the city is getting intense, provoking some to start cutting these trees around their homes and streets, experts on Saturday urged people to exercise restraint and warned that sudden removal of these trees would increase the city’s temperature.

They also called upon relevant departments to work in collaboration with researchers and generate scientific data to see the extent of the impact the species has so far caused on the environment including underground service lines/infrastructure and human life.

According to these experts representing Karachi University and the forest department, there is no scientific evidence showing that the exotic Conocarpus contributed to hot weather conditions, though the species was known to have other environmental effects and is not suitable for urban areas.

Some of them believed that the recent alarm over Conocarpus on the media seemed to have been generated by the timber mafia and any attempts to remove the species without scientific evidence must be discouraged.

‘Govt should first create green spaces with native species & then gradually remove Conocarpus’

They also called for an investigation and action against those who made the decision and ‘benefitted’ from the project of planting an exotic species in 2008 onward in Karachi and, thereby, put both the environment and human life at risk.

They also questioned the qualification of officials of parks and horticulture department, responsible for carrying out the sensitive task of making Karachi green.

It is important to recall that around 2.2m trees of exotic Conocarpus were planted in the city over a decade ago by local government’s parks department. At that time, too, experts had raised concerns over its plantation.

Cause of allergy?

Dr Anjum Parveen, a senior botanist at Karachi University who has researched Conocarpus, said that airborne pollens of Conocarpus were found to cause allergy in her study.

“Most plants having airborne pollen cause allergy and shouldn’t be planted in cities. This health problem caused by Conocarpus is not of a serious nature, though, more worrisome is its extensive root system which damages infrastructure and service lines,” she said, adding that some countries including the United Arab Emirates had banned this species.

According to her, the government should first create green spaces with native species and then gradually remove Conocarpus.

The concerned department, before taking up plantation, should take advice from botanists, she suggested, adding that the species had been found to benefit crops being grown in waterlogged and saline areas in the interior parts of Sindh.

Dr Zafar Iqbal Shams, a senior ecologist at KU’s Institute of Environmental Studies, said that Conocarpus consumed greater quantities of water and was good for coastal areas of Karachi but not for arid ones.

“We should remember that there is an extreme shortage of trees in Karachi. I fear that sudden removal of these trees will contribute to increasing temperature. That’s why I say stop cutting this tree and stop planting any more of this species,” he said, rejecting statements circulating on the social media that the exotic species was contributing to hot weather conditions in the city.

Karachi’s temperature, he pointed out, was rising due to the urban heat island effect, which was mainly due to cemented high-rise buildings and black bitumen roads that absorbed and trapped solar radiation during the day.

Dr Zafar emphasised the need for planting native species including peepal, bargad, amaltas, gulmohar, barna, neem and coconut.

Conservator mangroves Javed Mahar said that the forest department strongly opposed plantation of Conocarpus and still opposes it.

“But, we also believe that a long time is needed to replace it with native species. The rule of thumb all over the world is to encourage native species,” he said, adding that a survey was needed to examine its impact on infrastructure so far.

Sources said that the local government spent huge amounts of funds on the plantation campaign for Conocarpus, each imported plant costing between Rs2,000 and Rs2,500, ignoring local species available at much lower costs.

Upon contact, Syed Muzammil, one of the activists leading a plantation campaign that opposes Conocarpus, said that the campaign aimed to promote plantation of local species.

“The name of the exotic species is mentioned only with the purpose to create awareness that the plant is not environment friendly,” Muzammil, who also represents the Jamaat-i-Islami youth wing of Gulshan-i-Iqbal, clarified.

The youth wing’s particular advertisement circulating on the social media says, “Remove Conocarpus trees — plant fruit trees”.

He, however, couldn’t offer any satisfactory answer when asked about the specific plant experts he or his team consulted before suggesting removal of Conocarpus to the public.

How false information is being spread through social media can be gauged from the fact that most anti-Conocarpus messages lacked names of specific experts opposing the species and wrongly claim that the species was declared illegal by the Sindh High Court.

The species, however, was banned by the commissioner on environmentalists’ recommendation last year.

Liaquat Ali Khan, former head of the parks department who led the plantation campaign for Conocarpus, was not available for comments. He is currently associated with the department as an adviser.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2018

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