ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court has held that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Forest Ordinance, 2002 was a beneficial piece of legislation, enacted to preserve ecological significance, the integrity of the ecological system and in public interest to promote the understanding of environmental significance.

Reduction in forest and tree cover harms ecosystems and consequently the animals, birds and insects dependent on them and results in the loss of biodiversity, observed Justice Qazi Faez Isa in a judgment he wrote.

Justice Isa was a member of the three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial, which had taken up a set of appeals against the March 24, 2021 Mingora Bench (Dar-ul-Qaza) of the Peshawar High Court in a case pertaining to forest lands in Swat.

The appeals were moved by the KP government as well as some private parties, which had asserted ownership rights to lands situated in the former State of Swat, acceded to Pakistan on Nov 3, 1947 and its accession was accepted by Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his capacity as the Governor General of Pakistan.

Denuding land of forests and trees has catastrophic effects including flash floods, observes Justice Isa

The private parties wanted longstanding settlement/revenue records changed in their favour, by belatedly challenging the notification as well as setting up the constitution of the Forest Settlement Board for the re-determination of a forty-year-old matter.

Subsequently, the administrative control of Swat was taken over by the then government of West Pakistan. Thereafter, two regulations were enacted to attend to disputes pertaining to the lands situated in the former State of Swat.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeals moved by the KP government but dismissed the appeals moved by the private parties. Justice Isa regretted that Pakistan had been denuded of its forests and not enough has been done to protect the remaining forests.

An academic-scientific report states that Pakistan lost 14.7 per cent of its forest habitat between 1990 and 2005 and that from 2000 to 2020, Pakistan experienced a net change of 94.8 thousand hectares (4.5 per cent) in tree cover. Forests are necessary to promote headwater conservation for the alleviation of floods and water shortages, the judgment said, adding forest aid in the prevention of disasters and provide a stable supply of water since one tree can retain ground water up to 30,000 litres.

Denuding land of forests and trees has catastrophic effects including avalanches, flash floods, silting up of rivers, lakes and dams, the accumulation of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and climate change, Justice Isa observed.

Forests and trees remove carbon dioxide; over a one-year period a mature tree absorbs about 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and in exchange releases oxygen.

The European Environmental Agency has determined that in a year, 1.3 million trees are estimated to remove more than 2,500 tonnes of pollutants from the air.

“We must not lose sight of a most startling fact,” Justice Isa cautioned, adding Pakistan was among those countries that were disproportionately vulnerable to the consequences of climate change and therefore to ignore the reality of climate change was to be unjust.

The judgment stated climate change was not just a future threat, but a present reality. Climatic events of unprecedented severity are being witnessed.

The unilateral and unsustainable pillage of the earth’s resources has left humanity and all other species, vulnerable. Excessive burning of fossil fuels has heated up the earth’s temperature and when forests, which sequester carbon emissions are stripped away, its effect is compounded. Carbon fuel extraction needs to correlate with the available trees, plants and phytoplankton which store emissions, the judgment said.

Humans must assume their responsibility as trustees of the earth and of all of creation and, not to be deaf and dumb, engulfed in darkness, Justice Isa observed, adding the trees of the forest were sentient beings and, like human beings, part of the biotic community.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2023

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