Life cut short in the mangroves

July 15, 2011


IT would seem that all of Pakistan is in the grip of one frenzied land grab. From Khyber to Karachi, the rich, the powerful and the well-connected are squeezing out the vulnerable and the marginalised from their traditional lands to further enrich themselves.

Nowhere was this unequal confrontation more brutally displayed than in Kukkapir Village on the outskirts of Karachi. This is a village many of us have driven by on our way to our beach huts at Sandspit or Hawkes Bay on weekends. We have never given a thought to the struggle being waged here over the local mangrove forest that sustains a rich diversity of marine life.

After reading my column last week in which I had mentioned the plight of Indian and Pakistani fishermen imprisoned for years because they accidentally sailed over the maritime boundary, Sohail Osman Ali (Tinker to his many friends) sent me material about two recent murders in the area.

The last couple of times we met, Tinker had told me about the land grab Haji Yunus, a politically connected man from a neighbouring village, was allegedly pulling off. He also talked about Abdul Ghani, a fisherman friend he was helping, and how the police and the administration were siding with Haji Yunus.

In his moving obituary, Tinker described Abdul Ghani, the poorly educated son of a local watchman who became a passionate and effective defender of the threatened mangroves.

With the help of the World Wildlife Fund, he set up the Fisherfolk Development Organisation, an NGO that raised consciousness about the importance of mangroves to sustainable fishing.

Next came UNDP’s assistance in setting up an eco-tourism centre that included guided boat trips in the mangroves swamps, as well as a small seafood restaurant run by ladies from the village.

Also attached to Tinker’s email was an article by Salman Rashid called ‘Dying to Save the Mangroves’. Over the years, Salman has established an enviable reputation as an explorer, an archaeology enthusiast, and an amateur anthropologist. There are few corners of Pakistan he has not visited — often on foot — and few periods in our history he has not studied closely.

In his article, Salman gives us an unvarnished account of the events leading up to Abdul Ghani’s murder, as well as its political background.

The story begins after Ghani’s campaign to save the mangroves had begun to run into the apparent depredations of Haji Yunus, a self-made real-estate operator from a neighbouring village.

Having run out of land to parcel up and sell, Yunus allegedly began cutting down the mangroves and filling up the creeks.

Ghani obtained a stay order from the Sindh High Court in 2006 following a clash with Haji Yunus. But when a court official attempted to visit the site of the disputed area, he was stopped, allegedly by Haji Yunus’s thugs. Sadly, the provincial high court was unable to enforce its writ, a familiar story in much of Sindh.

Tension continued rising as the two groups skirmished against a backdrop of official patronage for Haji Yunus. A report to the local police by Ghani was contemptuously ripped up by the SHO.

When this government was elected, Ghani and his supporters mistakenly thought they would get a fair deal, given the fishing community’s support for the PPP. But the party, it appears, has jumped on the qabza group’s bandwagon, no doubt finding it closer to its current ethos. The provincial home minister publicly declared his support for Haji Yunus.

On May 5, Abdul Ghani and an older friend, Haji Abubakr, were kidnapped in broad daylight from their village; their dead bodies were found floating in the sea a day later.

Two months on, the mangrove creeks continue to be filled up, threatening a major ecosystem, as well as the livelihood of the local fishing communities. Meanwhile, the high court stay order banning further damage to the mangroves continues to be mocked. As to the murders, Salman concludes his article thus:

“Will there be justice? Will the killers who did in two good men ever be brought to trial? As noted earlier, this is a country where the police … can alter a murder to make it seem an accident. There seems little chance of justice for the men who died in vain and those who remain to mourn for them.”

Sadly, there are no suo moto notices from the Supreme Court on behalf of brave men like Abdul Ghani and Haji Abubakr who have died standing up to the forces of darkness. More than even before, justice is for the rich and the powerful. And certainly, the environment is there to be raped and plundered at will with active connivance of the ruling party.

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time on the beach near a fishing village. Most weekends were spent alone in my beach hut, with the local fishermen for company. I became friends with some of them, and got to know the gentle, orderly rhythms of their lives. I also became aware of the pressures building up against their way of life.

For years, successive governments have issued licences to foreign fishing fleets to operate at will in our coastal waters. These modern fleets use very fine nets that scour the bottom of the sea of all life, destroying eggs and immature fish. Unwanted species are tossed back into the sea, long after they have died. Progressively, the catch for the coast-bound local fishermen has been falling.

And now, another front has opened up against these beleaguered people: as Karachi grows and property prices climb, the land the fishing communities have lived on for centuries is suddenly a beacon for crooked developers. Neglected by the state as well as politicians, they now find themselves at the mercy of crooks.

The level of a nation’s civilisation is judged by how it protects the most vulnerable members of society. By this yardstick, Pakistan fares very poorly: witness the plight of the country’s women and minorities. Here is a chance to show that we are at least capable of doing the right thing occasionally: let us save the mangroves Abdul Ghani died trying to protect.