KARACHI: The forest department is yet to implement and release a notification on the Feb 2 decision of the provincial cabinet that declared the Bundal and Buddo islands off the coast of Karachi as protected forests.

Sources told Dawn a clearly defined lawful cover was important as it would help protect these critical forests spread over 3,000 hectares, or over 7,400 acres, from vested interests in play under the garb of “development” and set the tone of the ongoing conflict over their ownership between the federal and provincial governments.

The islands have escaped the onslaught of real estate developers thrice over the past two decades, first in 2000 and 2006 and then in 2013, exposing many private and government players, some still in power.

They were in the spotlight again when the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government promulgated the Pakistan Islands Development Authority Ordinance (Pida) to take over the two islands as well as other islands in Balochistan, but the ordinance got lapsed in December 2020.

Civil society activists file a petition in SHC seeking protection of mangrove forests on two islands

The sources said that the latest development pertaining to the Sindh cabinet’s decision had once again brought into question the role of the provincial government.

Cabinet’s decision on court orders

The sources pointed out that contrary to what was widely seen as a step taken to ward off the influence of the federal government over the islands’ status, the provincial government was forced to declare the twin islands as protected forests on Feb 2 on court orders; otherwise it would have faced contempt of court proceedings.

A petition being pursued by Ahmad Shabbar, Syed Yasir Hussain and Syed Jamil Hassan Kazmi is still pending in the Sindh High Court.

It challenges the federal government’s authority of promulgating an ordinance over the islands that exist in the “exclusive territories of the province of Sindh” and calls for protection of mangrove forests on multiple grounds.

The petitioners asked the court to direct the respondents to “furnish reasons as to why the mangroves of Buddo and Bundal islands are the only forests in the Indus delta within the jurisdiction of the Government of Sindh which have not been declared ‘Protected Forests’ vide notification No F&W (SOII)5(18)2008 dated 2nd November, 2010”.

Interestingly, the sources said, there was no response from the government for months. In September 2021, forest secretary Dr Badar Jamil Mandhro admitted in writing that some “lapse” were committed in the 2010 notification.

“It is respectfully submitted by the undersigned that he being secretary forest is conscious of the fact that all the forest lands and mangroves are protected forest areas for all purposes and intent in accordance with law and as far as the area in the subject petition is also protected forest area.

“However, it seems, due to some omission and/or lapse it wasn’t included in the Notification dated 2.11.2010 in clear terms for which all efforts will be made to include or notify the same as protected forest area in accordance with law, preferably within six months,” he had told the SHC.

Again, there was no response from the government for months. On Jan 20, 2022, the court warned the respondents of contempt of court.

“At the request of the secretary forest and wildlife department, government of Sindh and as a last chance two weeks’ time is allowed for compliance of undertaking in terms of order dated 02.09.2021. In case compliance is not made within the stipulated period, the delinquent official will expose himself to contempt of court,” the SHC warned in its Jan 20, 2022 order.

On Jan 22, the Sindh forest department had declared Bundal and Buddo islands as the property of the province and sent a summary to the chief minister for onward approval from the provincial cabinet and issuance of a notification to the effect.

On Feb 2, the cabinet approved the summary and directed the forest department to notify the two islands as protected forests.

A source in the forest department told Dawn that a notification in this regard would be issued after receiving minutes of the cabinet meeting. The said notification would also be submitted before the court on the nex hearing of the petition.

Forests declared protected in 1958

Sources in the forest department, however, said that the mangrove forests of the Indus delta at two different locations were declared protected through a 1958 notification issued under the Forest Act of 1927.

“In the first part of the notification, an area of 398,400 acres of un-survey wasteland of the then Thatta district was declared as protected forests. The particular portion of the notification encompasses the areas of Korangi and Phitti creek systems on which Bundal and Buddo islands are situated,” said an official.

The 2010 notification covered those mangrove forests, which hadn’t been included in the 1958 notification, he added.

Sharing his views on islands’ mangroves’ significance, Saeed-ul-Islam, Project Manager, Indus Delta Mangroves, WWF-Pakistan said these forests were part of the Indus delta, which was one of the 19 designated Ramsar sites and among the most important coastal wetlands of Pakistan and harboured exceptional biodiversity.

“These forests have assumed greater importance in the backdrop of climate change threats including increased frequency of cyclones and storm surge. The forests pull massive amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them in their soil, up to five times more than other forests,” he said, adding that 80 per cent of marine species lived in mangroves once in their life cycle and hundreds of fishermen were directly dependent on coastal fisheries.

He regretted that successive federal and provincial governments hadn’t set any example in sustainable development and talk of ecotourism seemed nothing but a distant dream.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2022

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