Masam Khan, 45, remembers sitting almost lifeless in front of his mudstone home. His children ran around him barefoot, oblivious to why their father was barely moving. Masam desperately looked at the burnt chilghoza (pine nut) trees in front of him. He could barely hold back to his tears, but he had to be strong for his family.
Weeks later, the resident of the Sharghalai area of the Koh-i-Sulaiman region is still lamenting his misfortune. This year, Masam expected to make a sizeable profit from the chilghoza trees he had been nurturing. The trees were meant to support his children and enable them to better deal with the rising inflation. Instead, all his hopes went up in flames with the massive forest inferno.
Masam says that the fires had already begun to spread in their surrounding areas, and his wife and children were afraid that they would reach them too. “They were afraid that the fire would burn them to death in their sleep,” he says, recalling the many sleepless nights his family spent.
As the fires came closer, the local administration and volunteers moved families such as Masam’s to a safer location. “They also arranged tents,” he recalls, adding that he and the other farmers still wanted to watch the situation closely. But when the fire came, there was nothing that they could do.
A couple of months after the inferno, locals are still reeling from the destruction of their chilghoza forest. It will take decades for them to bounce back...
They could only watch as years of hard work and future earnings all burnt to the ground.
When the locals’ battle against the fire began in the Koh-i-Sulaiman region, the rest of the country was unaware of the situation. On May 9, a video circulating on Facebook showed a devastating fire on the highest peak of Koh-i-Sulaiman. At first, the fire erupted in the pine forest in Dhana Sar Darazinda near Dera Ismail Khan. The fire then spread rapidly, fuelled by the gusty winds, to other sides of the mountain.
Roaring ferociously, the wind-driven flames spread rapidly and brought down the tall pine trees on the mountain slopes. On May 16, another fire spread to the Samazai and Sharghalai areas, and travelled up to Zarghoon Zawar.
The community members, majority of whom were direct beneficiaries of the pine forest, were left helpless. Three local men from the Sur Laki village near Koh-i-Sulaiman were burnt to death when they struggled, unsuccessfully, to douse the flames. Their remains were charred beyond recognition.
Finally, the provincial and federal governments took notice of the horrific fire and launched relief operations. The prime minister directed the concerned authorities to take immediate action. Many high-ranking officials and ministers started visiting the camp set up at Sur Laki.
Local volunteers, including Frontier Corps (FC) and Levies personnel and Rescue 1122 personnel, also worked for several days to put the fire out. Fire extinguishing chemicals and 400 fireballs were used to extinguish the fire, but did not prove effective. And army helicopters too tried to extinguish the fire, but their efforts too bore no fruit.
Finally, after 14 days, the Iranian firefighter aircraft Eloshin-76 managed to douse the flames and prevent its further expansion, saving the rest of the forest. The same Iranian plane had recently extinguished wildfires in Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. Besides the aerial sprinkling of water, the traditional method of establishing fire lines and digging ditches also proved effective to prevent the spreading of the fire.
The efforts finally paid off. But for many it was too late. The damage had been done.
ALL THAT IS LOST
Though the forest fire could be a natural phenomenon, the reason behind the Koh-i-Sulaiman blaze is yet to be ascertained. Different officials have their versions. Dostain Jamaldini, the secretary forest and wildlife Balochistan, says that the fire broke out in the Musakhail Zimri area close to the Sulaiman range because of a thunderstorm. But Muhammad Attiq, the district forest officer, is of the view that the wildfires started because of tribal feuds.
The exact cause must be investigated and addressed so similar incidents, with high costs, can be avoided in the future.
It is estimated that at least a third of this valuable forest has been affected. The initial assessment by the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) shows that the fast-moving wildfire raging for almost 15 days burnt down around 1.9 million native chilghoza and olive trees. As per one estimate, it will take about a 100 years to repair the damage.
According to a survey report compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature-Pakistan (IUCN), the blaze damaged an estimated 840,050 chilghoza trees, covering an area of 1,542 hectares of the community-owned pine forest. The fire resulted in a huge loss, amounting to four billion rupees.
On an individual level, many locals have lost not only this year’s earnings and their homes, but also their source for future earnings.
Blessed with breathtaking views and a beautiful landscape, the mighty Sulaiman mountain is also known for the world’s largest chilghoza forest on higher elevations. It is home to native Pinus Gerardiana (pine) and Pinus Wallichiana (Nashtar) trees and rare wild animals. This unique forest has remained the source of livelihood for almost 90 percent of the local community, and nurtures the indigenous flora and fauna.
Pakistan is one of the top five chilghoza-producing countries in the world and, according to some estimates, meets 15 percent of the global demand for the dried fruit. About 74 percent of the total production of pine nuts in the country is produced in the Sulaiman range.
As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) data, the chilghoza forest in the region is spread on 26,000 hectares (approximately 970 trees per hectare of land). The forest annually produces around 675,000 kilogrammes (675 metric tons) of chilghozas, and each fruit-bearing pine tree produces nuts worth Rs25,000 to Rs35,000 per year.
Dr Faizul Bari, the natural resource management adviser at FAO, says that chilghoza trees are not only trees, but a source of employment for the local people. The pine plant usually reaches fruit-bearing age in three decades. There are even 200-year-old trees in the forest, but the majority of them are middle-aged and young. It will take decades to replant trees in this area and bring them to a production level.
THE PERSONAL COST
Masam says that he used to make a profit of almost one million rupees per year from his chilghoza crop. The area where he was born, brought up and was married lacks roads, electricity, healthcare facilities, quality schools for the children and even clean drinking water. But the pine forest always took care of them.
Masam, there are thousands of others whose troubles have been aggravated manifold. Haji Yaro Sherani from the Ahmedi Darga area also belongs to the custodian community of this important ecosystem rich in natural beauty. Sixty-year-old Haji Yaro, wearing a traditional turban, says they even protected the valuable forest from tribal feuds.
“There was an agreement among the tribes and they were all bound by the decision that, if anyone cuts down a pine tree, [he] would have to pay a fine of one lakh rupees,” he says. “In order to save this forest from being cut down, we took the risk of tribal feuds, but all our efforts went in vain.”
Similarly, Muhammad Kharoti, a trader by profession, has been involved in the chilghoza business for the last 10 years. He has been buying pine nuts and selling them in other parts of the country.
Kharoti says that during the last two years, Covid-19 and the closure of highways and markets had badly affected their business but, this year, the business community had hoped to recover from the previous losses. “In the past, few people were associated with the business, but today a large number of people have thronged the market,” he says. “Now they all are experiencing an uncertain situation.”
Chilghoza harvesting season begins in September-October. After harvesting, the cones are filled in bags and brought down on camels from the highest peaks. After processing in a traditional manner, the nuts are transported to the Zhob market and then to Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Quetta, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi.
“People here have been very dependent on this cash crop,” Kharoti says, adding that the locals are very concerned about their future. “The forest fire has left a heavy negative impact not only on the locals, but also on the traders and the entire region as well,” he adds.
Barely two months since the blaze, media attention and the news cycle has moved on from the devastating fires. But for the locals dependent on this economy, their nightmare is far from over.
Dr Tariq Shah, a prominent researcher at the Balochistan University of Information Technology Engineering and Management Sciences (Buitems), suggests that the international community and the federal government should come up with a comprehensive plan and take concrete steps, both in the short and long term, for covering the losses caused by the inferno. He stresses that alternative earning arrangements must also be made for the affectees until they can start benefiting from the pine forest again.
“Recognition of the potential of this region and its chilghoza trade by the government and non-governmental organisations has been an important step,” he says. “But, surely, a lot more work remains to be done.”
“The chilghoza forest is owned by the local people and has remained the backbone of their economy,” says Bazmir Khan, a social activist and environmentalist. “[The forest] creates a lucrative socioeconomic opportunity for the local communities to profit from trading pine nuts,” he says, adding that the pine forest is a tax-free zone.
Forests play a crucial role in developing the rural and local economy. Balochistan, in general, and Zhob and the neighbouring Sherani districts, in particular, are known for their mesmerising natural beauty. But, unfortunately, little has been done for the development of these regions that hold both geographical and historical importance.
The fires brought some attention to these forgotten lands. They must not be neglected again now that the fire is out.
The writer is a Balochistan-based journalist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 24th, 2022