ISLAMABAD, April 14: Environmentalists are alarmed at a latest UN report that Pakistan’s forest cover has declined to two per cent (1.7 million hectares roughly), falsifying government claims that the woodlands currently occupied around 4.5 per cent of the total landmass.

“In fact, the forest cover is shrinking at minus 2.2 annual growth rate,” said the ‘State of the World Forest’ 2011 report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shared with this reporter by sources in the ministry of climate change.

Asif Shuja, the director general of the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-Epa), was not surprised. He pointed out how concerned authorities had been unable to curb deforestation in the Margalla Hills let alone control the timber mafia in other parts of the country, including Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

The FAO had said approximately 43,000 hectares of forest had been cleared per year between 1990 and 2010, bringing the role of the forest wing of the ministry into question. “The forest cover is shrinking at minus 2.2 annual growth rate, which is alarming,” the report warned.

Considering the pace of deforestation, if cutting of trees continued unchecked, Pakistan is likely to lose most of its forest within the next 35 to 40 years, said Lubna Hasan, a senior research economist at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics,  in her paper “An anatomy of state failures in the forest management of Pakistan’.

One of the major reasons for the decreasing tree cover and the minus growth rate, according to environmentalists, was the absence of a forest policy, as the country has not had one since its creation.

“The recently-launched climate change policy barely touches the deforestation concerns in Pakistan,” said a senior official in the ministry. According to the official, the authority concerned had been trying to get a forest policy approved for over a decade but was rejected by the law division several times. “Since forest is a provincial subject, any interference or initiative by the centre is turned down questioning the jurisdiction of the ministry,” the sources explained.

According to the official, the devolution of the ministry of environment two years back was the last nail in the coffin that rendered the forest wing of the ministry completely useless, taking away whatever little influence it had to protect the forests.

The Senate standing committee on climate change at a meeting on April 9 expressed its reservations over smuggling of timber from Chilas in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral to the rest of the country with the involvement of top bureaucracy.

The committee was concerned that the current rate of deforestation would disrupt the entire pattern of cropping and increase flooding in the country.

Secretary MoCC

Mohammad Ali Gardezi, the secretary ministry of climate change,  explained how forestry had always been a subject with the provinces and the centre had little role in it. Doubting the figures of the FAO report, Mr Gardezi directed the questions to the forest wing of his ministry.

The forest wing did not reject figures but argued how it would have to study the report thoroughly to understand what scale had been used by the UNFAO to map the forest cover.

A senior official of the forest wing on the basis of anonymity explained how without a policy on forest the government could not protect its woodlands.

He also explained how after 1947 Pakistan inherited the Government of India Act 1935 with forestry as a provincial subject. However, India’s forest cover that stood at 19 per cent in 1976 grew to 23 per cent in real terms today.

“This was when Rajiv Gandhi made constitutional amendments and placed forestry in the concurrent list giving provinces administrative control only. Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhuttu also realised the menace of the timber mafia and managed to stop deforestation for 10 years. But recently, former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf allowed transportation of timber worth Rs8 billion from Gilgit-Baltistan to the down country,” the senior official of the forest wing said. He said a ban had been placed on the movement of timber from Gilgit-Baltistan to other parts of the country to check deforestation in the region.

According to the official, the timber mafia was again cutting woods in the region endangering the environment.

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