PESHAWAR: Huge swathes of endangered forests have been illegally turned into commercial and residential schemes by land developers and builders in Haripur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a high level inquiry report investigating encroachment and cutting of designated forests has revealed.
The Makinal sub-division of Haripur, where the encroachment of forest land has occurred in clear violation of forestry laws, is adjacent to Islamabad’s Margalla Hills.
The inquiry committee that submitted its report to chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for action has fixed responsibility on senior officials of the forest department who have allegedly facilitated land developers to illegally cut trees and encroached on the designated forests of Makhnial sub-division.
The report has named Mr Sajad and Mr Nadeem Bukhari, former DPO of Haripur, the brothers of the former secretary of environment KP, Syed Nazar Hussain Shah, among the beneficiaries, who have reportedly purchased 229 kanals in Capital Hill from a local owner and are now offering for sale farm houses and residential plots at the site.
Report names senior officials as facilitators of encroachers
“Some private land developers have blatantly violated the law by raising concrete structure in Guzara forests, because the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Forest Ordinance, 2002, does not allow anybody to alter use of the designated forest lands other than for the purpose of plantation,” said an official of environment department.
Forests in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been divided into three categories including state owned ‘reserved forests’, ‘protected forests’ mostly in Malakand division which belong to the local communities and ‘Guzara forests’ in Hazara division and their ownership lies with the local communities but are managed by the forest department.
“The law is very clear about the land use of Guzara forests. Section 19 of the forest ordinance clearly stipulates that breakage of Guzara forests land and clearance of vegetation there from shall be strictly prohibited,” said the official.
The land developers, he said, had bulldozed the law in Makhnial, which held big attraction for the land mafia because of its location.
Encroachment in Makhnial forests has been determined with the help of Geographic Information System, field visits by the three members of the inquiry committee. The official documents reveal that land developers have illegally occupied approximately 15.75 hectares (38.92 acres) of forest covered area, besides illicit cutting of conifer trees.
The report says that the committee members thoroughly checked properties, recorded observations and took GIS coordinates following which the field data was processed in the GIS laboratory of Forestry, Planning and Monitoring Circle in Peshawar on the basis of topographic maps.
The committee has identified total six land developers, who have encroached on the designated forests in Makhnial. A developer in the name of Capital Hill has approximately encroached on 2.6 hectares in Kotla Guzara forests, Haider Property on 0.45 hectare in Hariala, Haroon Private Land on 0.4 hectare in Nilan Bhotu Reserved forests, Highland Hotel New Property on 3.4 hectares in Kotla Guzara forests, New Monal on 8.5 hectares in Kotla Guzara forests and Zara Lodge encroached on 0.4 hectare in Firozpur Reserve forests.
Significantly Makhnial forest sub-division, which is in close proximity with Margala Hills, remained a hub of official functions for the Billion Tree Tsunami, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government’s flagship afforestation project.
Officials said that Prime Minister Imran Khan and other international dignitaries had visited Makhnial for plantation activities, but land encroachment in the designated Guzara forests went unnoticed.
“Surprisingly, encroachment in forest covered area was ignored in the official correspondence either by the then chief conservator forests-II, chief conservator forests Lower Hazara and district forest officer Haripur,” said an official.
“These officials were supposed to bring this issue into the notice of the government at that time,” he said.
The inquiry committee was constituted on the directives of Chief Secretary Dr Kazim Niaz in July last when the issue was highlighted at the highest forums.
Sources said that the inquiry report had been submitted to environment secretary and chief secretary and several officers of the department, who allegedly played the role of facilitators in encroachment, had been charge-sheeted.
“Certain quarters are mounting pressure to stop action against encroachers and officials of the forest department, who played main role in encroachment on the designated forests. The committee has fixed responsibility on 17 forest guards, five foresters, sub-divisional forest officer, divisional forest officer, Haripur, conservator forest (northern forest region-II) and chief conservator forests,” they said.
The land developers encroached on the Makhnial designated forests when these officials were on duty from 2015 to 2020.
“Multibillionaires and money worshippers are like vultures, who leave no stone unturned to grab precious forest land in the name of development, elevating poverty, with devastating implications for future,” said the report.
“Strict action may be taken against all the responsible officers and field staff so that such incidents are not repeated again,” it said.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2020