Forest land transfers, deforestation spiral out of control
Lahore - A study commissioned by the Scientific Committee of WWF Pakistan has revealed that a startling area of forest land has been transferred over for non-forest uses since 1947. This is most rampant in Sindh and Punjab. At the same time, the deforestation rate in Pakistan is the highest in Asia; about -2.1 percent, as studied by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and only 2.5 percent of the country’s total area is forest cover. The Mid-Term Development Framework had set a target of increasing forest cover to 5.6 percent in 2010 and 6 percent by 2015 and similarly the Vision 2030 (Federal Planning Commission) stresses the need to increase forests.
However, since 1947 over 160,073 hectares (395,549 acres) of forest lands have been allocated for a number of non-forest uses without arranging alternate land and this conversion continues. The largest conversions of forest land have taken place in Sindh and Punjab corresponding to 110,024 hectares (271,875 acres) and 40,531.79 hectares (99,711 acres) respectively. When forest land is changed to non-forestry use, the products and services provided by the forest such as timber, firewood, water, medicinal herbs, wildlife, carbon storage and aesthetic beauty are lost, says WWF Biodiversity Director Uzma Khan. “When the outskirts of Lahore which had agriculture land, were used to be developed into housing societies, many trees were felled for this use,” she said speaking to Pakistan Today. “Trees are integral in urban areas as well as other areas in the country, as trees besides everything act as carbon sinks, and absorb pollutants within the water and the air. For urban areas what can replace this?” she says.
Khan also says that because many of the trees have been felled now, wildlife has also been affected. Small mammals, birds like kastrals, falcons, hoopoos (hud hud) horn bills, green pigeons and others have disappeared while once they were common species to be seen in and around Lahore. “Besides this, if agriculture land is converted into urban spaces, the land which could produce food is now barren,” says Khan. There is also a dearth of data regarding forest land conversions through official transfers and encroachments. While the figures for official transfers are available, information on forest land fragmentation, degradation, fire and encroachment are not known. The assessment of land conversion to other uses remained ignored in forest resource inventories carried out under FSMP in 1992 and other national resource assessments.
In Punjab, the largest land transfers have been in Bhakkar where in 21 transfers about 6210.32 ha of Rangeland forest has been given away, followed by Murree where 1799.23 ha of Reserved Forest land was given away in 20 transfers. South Forest Divisions have seen about 10 transfers from Reserved Forest land (about 5428.05 ha), Multan 9 transfers from Irrigated plantations (3,363.78 ha), and 1170 ha of Rangeland from Multan has been given in 9 separate transfers. Lahore itself has had 6 transfers, losing 327.39 ha of Reserved Forest from Tehra Rainforest, Jallo Park, Shahdra Rainforest and Kot Jeevan Mal Lahore Forest Park.
In three transfers, Changa Manga has lost about 1.06 ha to a veterinary hospital and 1.76 ha to a government high school prior to partition, while in 1980, 0.70 ha have been given to a rural health centre. All over Punjab, some of the major transfers have been made to departments including Wildlife, Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA), Tourism Development Corporation Department (TDCP), Pakistan Army, construction of hospitals, schools, Fisheries Department, Civil Aviation Authority, PTCL, WAPDA, Highways, Sericulture, Greater Thal Canal System, Microwave Towers, Housing Schemes (one case against Bahria Town Owner Malik Riaz is ongoing for cutting down trees from the Murree Reserved Forest, petitioned by WWF itself), Army Dog Centre, NMDA, police, Justice Department, CDA, district jail and for other specific purposes. In some cases forest land has been leased to private people including a piece of forest land to Royal Navy, Oman. This land is labeled Compartment 3 17 Municipal Forest Murree, where in 1994, 0.24 ha was allotted to the Royal Navy free of rental by the Colonies Department.