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THE FORESTS in Pakistan are severely threatened by growing consumption of fuel wood and illegal logging. It is feared that if immediate action is not taken this natural resource would be totally consumed within next 15 years.

While forests cover 2.5 per cent of the country’s land, Pakistan has the highest annual deforestation rate in Asia, according to the latest findings of World Wide Fund for Nature.

Merlin’s Wood in partnership with the country’s ministry of environment has developed a REDD+ programme in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to tackle the problem of deforestation. The project, which focuses on biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation, will serve as a model for the wider region and nationally. It is claimed that project activities will benefit lives of 75,000 people who live in villages and settlements bordering the forest area.

“Job creation, improved health care, alternative sources of energy and better education have all been provided for in the project along with environmental preservation of the area where there are a number of endangered species such as Snow Leopard and Western Tragopan,” according to the UK-based Merlin’s Wood portal.

According to Wikipedia, REDD/REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is the UN initiative for combating climate change all over the world. Deforestation is the permanent removal of forests and withdrawal of land from forest use whereas forest degradation refers to negative changes in the forest area that limit its production capacity.

REDD mechanism was adopted in the 15th Conference of the Parties held in Copenhagen in Dec 2009. It is designed to mitigate the pollution produced by industrialised nations by accrediting the developing countries with funds called carbon credit. It is to address the issue of green house gases emission.

Wikipedia states that REDD+ is not just establishing national parks or protected areas; it could include land use practices such as shifting cultivation by indigenous communities and reduced-impact-logging. That is why some foresters argue that this is opening the door to logging operations in primary forests, displacement of local populations for conservation and increase of tree plantation. They assert that REDD+ is thus another extension of “green capitalism” subjecting the forests and its inhabitants to new ways of expropriation.

However, expert foresters claim that REDD/REDD+ mechanism is useful if properly implemented by taking forest communities on board and giving them the benefits of the activities in an equitable way.

Pakistan has yet to undertake the mechanism on a national level, but recently the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has leased lands to Merlin’s Wood for the next 40 years to start the REDD activities in Battagram, Torghar and Mansehra districts in Hazara division; and Swat in Malakand division. It is not known whether the government has negotiated the lease with the communities of the target areas.

In Pakistan, people are usually bypassed by the government in taking decisions on many issues. This creates mistrust between the people and government. The forest communities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are usually the least informed and most neglected.

Their resources are exploited at the cost of their living and environment. And the exploiters always come from the dominant communities. For instance, in the valley of Bahrain and Kalam in Swat, timber is smuggled by influential people hailing from main Swat. The big timber contractors are not from the communities. Many of the affluent families of Swat had got their wealth out of the ‘forest businesses’ called contracts. As the logging needs huge bribes hence local people cannot get the contracts.

This practice goes back to the Wali’s era. Even in 1947, in the aftermath of transition of power from the British Raaj to Pakistan, over 300 big deodar trees were felled only in Kalam by a cabinet member of the Wali and transported to the headquarters.

We do not know which part of Swat has been selected for the lease to UK-based Merlin’s Wood; and whether the concerned communities have been consulted or not.

Back in the 80s when the land and revenue registration (Patwari system) was introduced in Swat a great uproar was raised by local people, which was squashed by then government with force. Later, many people discovered that their agitation was not justified as the measure is now seen just registration and demarcation. It was because the government had not taken the local communities in confidence.

Now, as the KP government has signed a memorandum of understanding for lease of lands with the Merlin’s Wood, it must start negotiations with the communities of Hazara and Swat so as to ensure maximum benefits for local people. It must have done so prior to the MOU signing. Nevertheless it is still not too late.