By Altamash M. Kureshi
THE unscrupulous act of timber mafias, big landholders and land developers has deprived the country of its already small forests. Of the total geographical area of 52,994 square miles, 5.7 million hectares of land is cultivated, which is degrading, resulting in decline in agriculture productivity and affecting the livelihood of rural communities.
According to the Gazetteer of Sindh (compiled by E. H. Aitken) forests occupied an area of about o.6 million acres and were mostly riverine depending on annual inundation of the Indus.
At the time of independence, Sindh had an area of about 500 square miles under forest. These forests were mainly on both sides of the River Indus right from Kashmore to Karachi.
There were about 87 forests extending from Kashmore to the middle delta i.e. up to Karachi. These forests were narrow strips of quarter to two and from two to three miles in breadth; 25 on the western and 61 on eastern bank of the river. The larger ones were Mari, Khanot, Laikpur, Bhorti, Saduja, Andadal, Shahpur, Shikarpur, Unarpur, Viran and Buto. Besides, this government-controlled woodland, there were also some privately-owned forest especially in Khairpur.
The wood of these forests comprised Babul (Acacia Arabica), Bahan (Populus cupharatica), Tali (Dalbergia sissu) though not considered indigenous and Kandi (Prosopis spicigera). Besides, there were Neem and Pipal which is a staple tree in the forest of lower Sindh. Some foreign species were also introduced by the forest department in the region such as Acacia dealbata, A. Lopantha and A. melanoxylon Trapa natans, Emblica officinalis and creatonia siliqua.
During the British period, these riverine forests were looked after by the Sindh Forest Department headed by a conservator supported by full-fledged technical and non-technical sub-ordinate staff.
The departmental yearwise statistical figures of pre-independence period show that income were in excess over expenditure. Beside, providing jobs and habitat to millions of household living within its bound, the forests also had seasonal crops. These forests were not only the source of monsoon but served as safety-valve against annual floods beyond protective dykes.
The fertility of soil in these forests was proverbial; it provided livelihood to millions. These woodlands were sanctuaries to variety of wildlife, flora and fauna, and great source of fresh milk, honey besides wood for furniture, buildings and fuel. The established rule was, however, that for each tree cut, the department had to plant a new sapling. The accuracy was so consistent that not a single tree was left out of the books.
After the Independence however, like other government organisations forest department also gradually gave in to corruption and inefficiency.
Things deteriorated after the first martial law when local laws were relegated and the influential joined hands with the power to promote their vested interests. The decline that started in the 1960’s was accelerated in the 1980’s when the forests became hideouts of dacoits and the special interests got an opportunity to cleanse them.
With the passage of time, the role forest department also changed from conservation to collaboration. Gradually, these forests have been completely destroyed by the builder mafias interested in cheap wood; influential lands lords interested in the virgin lands. Now 90 per cent of forests are either under unauthorised possession or leased to local influential on nominal government rates as Katcha land.
The forest department, whose primary function was to protect these natural woodlands, either remained silent spectator or collaborated with the predators. Now the state of affairs is that right from Kashmore to Karachi, except small patches, no forest worth mentioning is left and the invaluable land is now in the possession of the influential.
Now the palpable change we experience is the considerable decline in rainfall pattern in Sindh for the past one decade for which responsibility does not exclusively lie with those who were suppose to preserve it but also on those who have turned these lush green forests into cultivable lands. Basically it is they, who have to suffer first the consequences of deforestation i.e. erosion of fertile land, scant rainfall, heating up of environment, floods, loss of wood, wildlife and honey, fresh milk etc.
Undeniably, the trees are nature’s gift for mankind; they not only keep the atmosphere clean and healthy but the most vital fact is that mature trees add to local humidity through transpiration (the process by which plants release water through their leaves) and thus ensure rainfall.
In the water-cycle, moisture evaporates into the atmosphere forming rain clouds before being precipitated as rain back onto the forest. The woodlands, therefore, play a vital role in regulating regional climate by providing the base for continuity of water cycles. These forests also play a critical role in climate regulation by absorbing carbon dioxide, a gas believed to be partially responsible for global warming.
Although cutting even a single tree is a reprehensible act, annihilation of the entire forests, without exaggeration, is an unpardonable crime under any cannon of law and religion. Since the tree slaughtering is still going on as reported from time to time in the media, the task ahead is manifold. First it has to be ensured that no more despoliation of tree occurs and second that vanished forest is restored. The authorities have to initiate a national drive to enlighten the people living in the hinterland about the role trees plays in the progress and prosperity of country.
The forest lands in unauthorised possession should be vacated. For those lands that are on lease, either same be retaken or the landlords /lessees be asked to grow trees and not cultivate crops till the period of lease is over. During the lease period, they can be allowed benefits of the trees. Such arrangement, if adopted, can help restore the depleting river forests.
Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 2.6.2008