ISLAMABAD, Aug 19: The timber mafia in NWFP has wreaked havoc on the forest of Chitral by illegally felling green trees and smuggling them to other parts of the country. However, the government has failed to take action against the network despite initiating investigations through the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
Chitral's mostly deodar forest spreads over 120,000 acres out of which 100,000 acres are commercial and the remaining 20,000 acres non-commercial. Under the law, trees can be cut down after being marked by the government for domestic use or export to other districts. The forest area stretching from Lowari to Ayun has already been under stress due to excessive cutting for use as firewood.
A total of five million trees were cut down after marking from 1967 to 1997, while clandestine cutting and smuggling also continued during the period. A large-scale marking of trees was carried out during 1990-91 but soon a ban was imposed after objections raised by environmental agencies and the public mostly from the subdivision of Mastuj who heavily depend on the forest of lower Chitral for firewood and construction purposes.
However, the timber mafia remained active and in 2005-06 succeeded in persuading the government to restart marking, saying if the ‘windfall’ trees and those affected by heavy snowfall and rains were not marked for cutting, they could catch fire and destroy the whole forest!
As a result, the government sanctioned marking and the timber mafia initiated the process from Rumbur valley after entering into a dubious deal with the elders of the area under which the forest owners would get Rs30 per foot. Soon, 700,000 trees were marked for cutting in the small valley after showing them `windfall’. However, on public complaints, an inquiry was initiated which found that out of the 700,000 trees marked, a whopping 500,000 were green and healthy saplings.
Though the government once again stopped the process but no action was taken against those who had marked green trees for cutting.
Later, the youth of the area did not even allow chopping of the remaining 200,000 marked trees demanding payment at the market rate. Similarly, 200,000 trees were marked in the Birir and 600,000 in the Shishy valleys. Locals say widespread irregularities have been committed in the marking of trees in these valleys too.
Sources in the forest department said the mafia bought the trees at the rate of Rs30 per foot from the locals and smuggle it to other district where it fetched Rs3,000 per foot.
"Billions of rupees are involved in the illegal trade and forest department officials from top to bottom are involved in the scam."
Chitrali officials in the forest department told Dawn that the timber mafia has been looting the forest resources of the district with impunity by keeping the local officials and the residents at bay.
They said with the abolition of the state Chitral’s forest came under the administrative control of the provincial government on January 1, 1971. Giving one example of how the locals have been kept out of the decision-making process in the department, they said all key posts in the district forest department were given to outsiders. To make sure that no Chitrali got a responsible job in the department, the doors for admission to the only Forest College of the country in Peshawar have been closed on the Chitrali students. A few students who took admission to the college on a self-finance basis were denied jobs in the department lest they could expose the wrongdoings.
In a letter to the President on behalf of the residents of Arandu Lasht, one Mohammad Ali Khan complained about the indiscriminate cutting of forest in Arandu Gol, Damel and Langorbat.
He said the smuggling of timber to Afghanistan and Upper Dir areas continued under the nose of the customs officials. He said the mafia got 140,000 feet of wood chopped down in Arandu Gol alone and later claimed that they had confiscated 55,000 cubic feet of wood in order to avoid payment of royalty amounting to millions of rupees to the locals. But strangely, neither the accused were identified nor any investigation ordered.
The locals regretted that on the one hand the government had put in place strict rules for movement of timber within the valley and on the other given a free hand to the mafia to smuggle it out of the district.