Chitral timber mafia making hay out of govt’s ‘windfall policy’

Published September 20, 2021
This file photo shows logs of timber. — Reuters/File
This file photo shows logs of timber. — Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: While billions of rupees have been spent on the tsunami afforestation programme, the government’s own policy of cutting trees for commercial use is helping the timber mafia in denuding Chitral of its green forest cover, according to official documents.

Under the policy, the trees that are damaged due to strong winds or heavy snow can be marked and cut down in consultation with the local communities for commercial use. But taking cover of the policy, green and healthy trees are axed by the timber mafia in connivance with government officials concerned and sold in the urban areas.

People with political connections have been involved in the illegal cutting of green trees, smuggling and depriving local communities of the forest royalty.

According to official documents available with Dawn, PTI leader Abdul Latif, who was the party’s candidate for National Assembly seat of Chitral in the 2013 and 2018 elections, was fined Rs41.34 million by the forest department for cutting 18,754 cubic feet of unmarked green trees in Rumbur valley in 2013.

DFO says 8.8m cubic feet of trees marked for cutting from 2006 to 2014

He filed a case in a civil court and in the meanwhile managed to get the penalty amount reduced to Rs6.8 million through an arbitration held by the forest department.

In March 2019, the civil court directed him to pay the reduced fine. It also ordered departmental action against government officials involved in the case. However, Mr Latif filed an appeal in the district and sessions court which was dismissed last month.

In 2015, APML leader Khalid Pervez and a former divisional forest officer along with three other persons were arrested by NAB for their alleged involvement in embezzlement of Rs76 million forest royalty funds of the people of Bumburate. They were acquitted of the charges by an accountability court in March 2019.

Forests in Chitral are spread over 120,000 acres mainly in Kalash, Arandu and Shishikoh valleys.

According to official figures, more than five million trees were felled under the windfall policy between 1967 and 1997. This was apart from the illegal cutting of trees and smuggling of the timber. After public outcry, a ban was imposed on marking of trees for cutting in 1991.

However, in 2006, the timber mafia managed to persuade the government to lift the ban, claiming if trees damaged by winds, heavy snowfall and rains were not marked and felled, they could catch fire and destroy the whole forest.

The government then allowed marking of trees and the process was initiated from Rumbur. Soon afterwards, 700,000 trees were felled in the small valley alone. On the complaints of locals, an inquiry was initiated that found that 500,000 of the marked trees were green and healthy.

The district forest officer, Farhad Ali, confirmed to Dawn that 8.8 million cubic feet of trees were marked in different areas of Chitral for cutting from 2006 to 2014 under the windfall policy.

In June 2018, a letter written by the deputy commissioner of Lower Chitral to the authorities concerned sought withdrawal of the policy, saying it was causing irreparable destruction to the forest.

The letter said that over 1.49 million cubic feet of illegally cut timber was lying in Arandu while 26,210 cft was left abandoned in Kalkatak, awaiting transportation to the down districts.

On August 13 this year, the provincial cabinet approved Rs525 million for transportation of 1.49 million cubic feet of the illegal timber from Arandu to Chakdara depot for sale.

An official in the Forest Development Corporation (FDC) said that no marking of trees had been carried out for about two years though the windfall policy was yet to be withdrawn.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2021

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