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KARACHI, June 16: The Mari Gas Company Limited (MGCL), owned by the army-operated Fauji Foundation, has been accused of conducting exploratory activities in protected wildlife areas, Dawn has learnt.

The Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD) and the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) claim that the mandatory permission and no-objection certificates have not been obtained from them.

If true, this indicates that the MGCL is in violation of the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance (SWPO) and the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA). At the root of the debate is MGCL’s concession area of Sukkur Block, which encompasses the Dolphin Game Reserve, the Mando Dero Game Reserve and the Doso Forest Game Reserve. The company obtained from Sepa an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) permitting it to carry out a seismic survey in the block, but this document states clearly that “this approval is not valid for the project area located in any protected area, ie national park, wildlife sanctuary and game reserve.” Sources say that in order to legally carry out a survey in these areas, the MGCL requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

The MGCL, meanwhile, categorically denies having carried out any exploratory activities in the protected areas.

Following the conflicting views of MGCL, and the wildlife and environmental watchdogs expressed at a meeting held on May 24, sources say that a joint survey of Sukkur Block will be conducted.

The issue first surfaced through a letter written by SWD’s Sukkur-based deputy conservator Hussain Bux Bhaagat to his superior, SWD conservator Ghulam Rasool Channa, on April 19, 2007. It stated that “the government has allocated Sukkur concession block to Mari Gas. Two protected areas, namely the Dolphin Game Reserve and the Mando Dero Game Reserve fall in the Sukkur Block […] Now before obtaining any no-objection certificate, a seismic survey has started in Sukkur Block […] which is a violation of PEPA (Pakistan Environmental Protection Act) and Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1972 rules. […] Please look into the matter personally and concerned quarters may be moved to take necessary action.”

At the same time, Sepa deputy director Sukkur Waqar Phulpoto surveyed the areas around Sukkur, Shikarpur and Rohri with Mr Bhagaat, met Mari Gas representatives Samandar Khan and Sultan, and spoke to exploration manager Tufail Ahmed Khoso. Subsequently, Mr Phulpoto sent a report to the Sepa head office in Karachi.

Dated May 17, 2007, the report states: “Mari Gas is carrying out its 2D seismic operations within the concession area. […] The proponent (MGCL) did not consult for guidance with wildlife officials while carrying out survey in game reserves […] The three game reserves falling in Sukkur Block are: i) Doso Forest Game Reserve, ii) Mando Dero Game Reserve, and iii) Dolphin Reserve.”

This report quotes the MGCL exploration manager Tufail Khoso as saying that “no blasting, no use of air gun etc within the Dolphin Reserve or other wildlife protected areas has been carried out. Only recce [reconnaissance] had been carried out within the above mentioned wildlife protected areas. […] The cables were crossed above the water surface over the River Indus.”

Sepa official Mr Phulpoto says in his report: “The cables used for seismic activity [were] found laid over the surface, observed by undersigned [Mr Phulpoto] within Sukkur city and along the highway and protection bund [embankment] of the River Indus at Rohri. […] According to the report of SWD DC and observations, the company / proponent has surveyed the said game reserves, though the Sepa IEE approval to the MGCL says ‘this approval is not valid for the project area located in any protected area’ […] Hence it requires an EIA before the start of such activities.”

After receiving these reports, said sources, Sepa called a meeting on May 24 that was attended by conservator Ghulam Rasool Channa, Sepa representative Naeem Mughal and MGCL representatives Tufail Khoso, Dr Moughis Shahid and Lt. Col. (retd.) M. Hodiqa. The gas company denied having carried out any exploration activities in the protected areas, and subsequently, it was decided that a joint survey of the area would be conducted to confirm the true situation.

Sepa Director-General Malik Ghauri and conservator Channa confirmed that a final decision would be taken after the survey was carried out.

MGCL exploration manager Tufail Khoso, however, initially denied that any meeting between Sepa, SWD and the gas company had been held at all. After being reminded that he was amongst the three-member MGCL team, he said that such meetings were routine since Sepa and MGCL had various issues to resolve. Terming it a “confidential matter”, he refused to give any further details. He also refused to provide Dawn with the telephone numbers for the other two team members who attended the meeting, and MGCL’s office in the interior of Sindh, saying that this was “confidential” information -- although such numbers are listed. Moreover, any information pertaining to the Mari Gas Company Limited should be made available to the public in general and the media in particular since the company is listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange.

The sources allege that the proposed joint survey is merely a move to sweep the issue under the carpet and bail out the powerful MGCL. They point out that the survey has not been conducted despite the passage of over three weeks, and the MGCL must have wrapped up its operations already. Evidence of their activity, such as seismic cables and blast marks, would soon be lost.