KHYBER: Fear of losing ownership rights over natural forests by the residents of Tirah valley in Khyber tribal district and negative propaganda by timber smugglers are impeding the efforts of forest department to extend its laws to the region, according to sources.

Officials, however, said that they had not yet given up their efforts and were in constant contact with local elders of the picturesque valley to explain to them the importance of forest protection laws.

Forests in the merged districts are still considered as a collective property of the tribes on whose regions these forests, though natural, exist.

Mohammad Shakeel, the district forest officer, told Dawn, that the department initiated a dialogue with local stakeholders (mostly tribal elders) and so far held three major jirgas with them, explaining to them and assuring them that their interests would be safeguarded with the extension of necessary laws and categorisation of the forests.

Elders fear losing forest ownership rights

Malak Mardan, an elder of Zakhakhel tribe who was member of the jirga that held negotiations with forest department officials, said that although they also expressed their concerns over the illegal cutting of forest and smuggling of timber out of Tirah, yet they were not fully convinced about official assurances regarding adequate share in the income from forests after the extension of the relevant laws to the region.

He said that the tribal elders also refused to form government-sponsored committees for the protection of forests as they already had their own local committees that were taking care of their forests efficiently.

Malak Wadan Khan, a Qambarkhel elder, told this scribe said that they had little faith in the official assurances as successive governments frequently changed their policies without taking the actual stakeholders into confidence.

However, the department has established checkposts at the entry and exit points of Tirah with the assistance of local police to keep an eye on the smuggling of timer.

It succeeded in apprehending three vehicles loaded with illegally felled forest trees at a checkpost in Malakdinkhel area. The drivers were arrested and the vehicles were impounded.

“This is the maximum we can do as of now. We cannot go deep into the forests and stop illegal cutting due to absence of any law in the tribal districts for protection of local forest,” said Mr Shakeel.

He said that forests in tribal districts were not formally handed over to the department.

“The local forests have so far not been categorised and marked as protected forest, reserved forest, guzara forest or protected waste land as per the forest protection laws,” he added.

The official said that his department even offered a sponsored tour of Hazara and Malakand regions to the Tirah elders to show them and assure them that they would get maximum benefit from their forests rather than losing it after extension of the relevant laws.

He, however, regretted that an organised timber mafia was spreading negative propaganda against their efforts to preserve the natural forest.

He said that timber smugglers, who were not the original owners of the forests and were mostly outsiders, feared to lose their hold on the forests.

The residents of Tirah have also raised their voice for the protection of precious forests and have called upon the authorities to take practical steps to discourage illegal forest cutting and smuggling of timber out of the valley.

Ali Akhtar, a young local social activist, told Dawn that the ruthless cutting of forest was one the one hand affecting the God-gifted natural beauty of the valley while on the other hand it was also adding to the rising of temperature in surrounding localities.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2021

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