KARACHI, Nov 3: A revised version of the decades-old forest act suggests critical changes in key government powers to protect what little is left of forests, including the establishment of a settlement committee to determine the status of land, measures to ensure community participation, increase in the number of acts prohibited and enhancement of penalties and punishment.

The draft titled The Sindh Forest Act, 2011 was presented for consultation at a workshop organised on Thursday by the Sindh forest department in collaboration with the Worldwide Fund for Nature at a local hotel.

The draft was prepared by K.K. Consultants, a company of retired forest department officials, with financial support of the WWF.

The speakers highlighted the need for amending and replacing the old law enacted in 1927.

The present law, they said, was obsolete and inadequate to meet ground realities. It did not address the issues relating to sustainable management, and its application had become very difficult in view of the changing situation.

Weak and flawed regulations, inefficient and corrupt administrations coupled with pressures from politicians as well as military officials had led to the destruction of indigenous forests and woodland on a large scale.

“Pakistan has the highest annual deforestation rate in Asia and the forests cover only 2.5 per cent of the country’s land which was 33pc at the time of independence. If the current deforestation and trend of land conversion from forest to other uses is not checked, the country will not be able to meet its commitment under the Millennium Development Goals of increasing its forest cover from 2.5pc to 6pc,” said Nasir Panhwar citing a recent study of the WWF.

Ideally, forest area should be 25pc of the total land in a country, he added. He stressed the need for community participation in forest management and said that community-managed forests should be made an integral part of the revised act.

Giving a presentation on the revised act, Dr G.R. Keerio, representing K.K. Consultants, said the recommended set of laws addressed issues at all levels to ensure willingness and support of stakeholders. It covered the missing links and included new concepts of sustainable management.

An important clause in the draft, according to Dr Keerio, was the recommendation that government powers to change the status of reserved and protected forests should be withdrawn and it could only intervene in cases where right of way was required for civic facilities, road, canal and park without any concrete building or permanent structure.

There was, however, some concern over the approval of the relevant clause by the provincial assembly. “The refusal of the chief ministers of all provinces except Punjab to surrender the powers of changing the status of forest land is the major reason why a national policy on forest couldn’t materialise last year. So, it is unlikely that such a clause would be approved by the assembly,” remarked Haider Raza Khan, a senior conservator of forests.

The revised draft also recommends the establishment of a forest settlement committee instead of a forest settlement officer, comprising a revenue officer not below the rank of executive district officer for revenue, district forest officer notified by the competent authority and a representative of civil society.

It also makes preparation of forest management plans mandatory for all types of forest. It also suggests giving powers to forest officers to enter upon, issue search warrants, hold an inquiry, use force and try before a magistrate or court.

Giving his input, Shamsul Haq Memon, a former forest department official, said the definition of ‘wasteland’ needed to be reviewed to exclude coastal land under mangroves considered as wasteland.

He also suggested that the government might have the powers to declare any tree or plant growing on private or government land as reserved or protected which, it believed, faced the threat of extinction.

Aijaz Ahmed Nizamani, additional secretary of the forest and wildlife department, said the conversion of forest land, the law and order situation, a water shortage and social and political issues were some major factors that had led to the depletion of forests.

He urged forest department officials to adopt a pragmatic approach towards forest conservation as ‘one could only survive by giving opportunities’.

Hameed Ahmed Khan, a senior conservator, urged forest department officials to persuade politicians of their area to ‘leave what is left to the forests’ and take a strong stand when it came to forest conservation.

Mehboob Alam Ansari, retired forest department official; Nadir Ali Talpur, chief conservator of Hyderabad, and Riaz Ahmed Wagan, chief conservator of Thatta, also spoke.

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