Besides its breathtaking views, the Sulaiman mountain range, which lies between Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, is also known for the world’s largest chilghoza (pine nuts) forest on higher elevations. The 26,000-hectare forest produces around 640,000 kilogrammes of chilghozas annually, according to an estimate provided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Much has been written about the underutilised potential of the pine nuts forest, and all the benefits increased exports could bring for the local pine growers and for Pakistan’s economy.
The potential has always been huge. The Pakistani pine nut has the biggest kernel size in the world and, according to FAO data, Pakistan is the fifth-largest producer of pine nuts, meeting around 15 percent of the world’s demand for the dry fruit.
The pine nuts grown in the Sulaiman range make up 74 percent of the country’s total production. And while the forests in South Waziristan, Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan have a variety of trees, the forests on the Sulaiman range have only pine trees.
All this creates a lucrative socio-economic opportunity for the local communities to profit from trading pine nuts. “Since the pine forests are located on unsettled land, it is a tax-free zone,” adds Yahya Khan Musakhail, FAO’s provincial coordinator.
But despite the supply across Pakistan, and the annual exports to China and the Middle East, the scattered villages on the chilghoza-growing belt, such as those in the Sherani subdistrict which lies within the Sulaiman mountain range, remain underdeveloped.
Top quality chilghozas grow on the Sulaiman mountains, but the economic potential of trading these valuable nuts has not been fully tapped into. Is this about to change?
This past year things were even more difficult for the local pine nut growers, as the price of chilghozas dropped following pandemic-related closures of international markets and highways. The pine nut growers report significant pandemic-related losses, but they are not ones to give up in the face of adversity.
Despite the lack of resources, residents such as Mehrab Khan, who lives in a mud hut in the lush, green Killi Samzai, have been in the chilghoza trade for decades. The elderly member of the Sherani tribe describes how the villagers become active as the harvesting season arrives in September.
“People go up the mountains with provisions to camp in the forests, where they work during the day and rest at night,” Khan says. He adds that the pine cones are plucked from the trees using hook-shaped cutters fastened at the end of long wooden sticks, and collected in empty sugar or flour bags. They are then finally transported to the villages on camels.
Initially, the bags of pine cones are buried in a pit for three weeks to ripen, before being dug out and left in the sun for two to three days. When the cones become dry, men, women and children get busy extracting nuts from them. This is done by hitting the cones with sticks or filling burlap sacks with cones and hitting them against a hard surface to shatter the cones and release the nuts.
Not only is this manual method labour-intensive and cumbersome for the villagers, it is also not sustainable according to some.
“Harvesting pine nuts is a delicate process and requires utmost care to protect the twigs and offshoots from damage,” FAO’s Musakhail says. “The traditional method of extraction is unsustainable and time-consuming,” he says, adding that because cones of different
species ripen at different times, plucking them with a cutter damages the branches and affects their regeneration.
“Dumping cones in pits is also not a good idea because fungus can destroy the entire crop,” Musakhail adds. “Sometimes, when there are heavy rains, the cones absorb moisture and the nuts break during this method of extraction.”
But for long, nut growers have had no option other than sticking to these traditional methods, and suffering any losses that come as a result of the process. Slowly but surely, this is also changing.
A NEW DAWN?
In 2019, three nut-processing units were set up in Zhob city and this year a couple of others have been set up in Sur Laki and Ahmedi Dargah in Balochistan. Pine nuts are washed, roasted and packaged at these units. The villagers are still very much a part of the process. Machines have been provided to the communities for cone crushing, and have made the extraction of nuts easier as compared to the long and hectic manual process.
The villagers with access to these machines appear to be happy with them, but with the technologies not being available everywhere on the expansive growing belt, the traditional method of extraction is still widely used.
“Pine nuts from Qaisa Ghar, Manra, Shin Ghar, Obshtha Suka, Zarghoon Zawar, Tor Ghar, Nari, Ponga and Parei areas of Koh-i-Sulaiman are brought to Zhob city for processing, and then transported to Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Peshawar, Lahore and China,” says Abdul Wadood, a 40-year-old pine nut grower from Killi Manra, Balochistan.
Wadood has been in the pine nut business for 20 years. “Pine nuts take up to three years to mature and are difficult to harvest, which makes them the most expensive dry fruit,” he says. There was a time when the price per kilogramme of chilghozas was 8,000 rupees, he says. But the local market prices dropped significantly last year as the traders could no longer transport the dry fruit to China.
New technologies and development projects may help these pine nut growers yield higher profits and minimise losses.
A project initiated by the FAO is being financed by Global Environment Facility, a multilateral trust fund focused on enabling developing countries to invest in nature, to preserve pine forests and boost tree plantation in the Sulaiman range. Fast-growing trees are also being planted to provide wood for the locals as an alternative to fuel.
The project also entails assistance in agroforestry, provision of tool kits and technical assistance to villagers engaged in harvest. And, perhaps most importantly, the project also aims to connect local traders with the global market.
In the past two decades, thousands of trees were cut down callously in the Sulaiman range and the valuable wood was sold by the ‘timber mafia’ and the locals. Past mistakes can be remedied by preserving the remaining forests and increasing tree plantation in the area.
Locals welcome these projects, but more needs to be done to turn chilghoza trade into a true Pakistani success story.
Fulfilling other basic infrastructural necessities, such as development of paved roads, will not only boost pine nut trade but also tourism in these scenic areas. Recognition of the potential of this region and its chilghoza trade by the government and non-governmental organisations has been an important step. But, surely, a lot more work remains to be done.
The writer is a Balochistan-based journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 24th, 2021