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Lost in the forests

The Punjab government’s recent ordinance amending the Forest Act of 1927 is a threat to the shrinking forest cover

Lost in the forests

Climate change has emerged as the biggest threat to Pakistan’s development over the past decade. This has been apparent from the increase in climate-induced natural disasters being recently experienced by this region. The intensity of glacial meltdown due to rising temperatures has resulted in destructive floods from 2010 onwards, almost on an annual basis.

The country is considered one among top ten countries that are vulnerable to climate change. Though the country claims to be one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, blatant disrespect for the environment on the government’s part has left the country at the mercy of an angry mother nature.

Recently, the Punjab government amended the Forest Act of 1927 which received severe criticism from environment protection organisations. Through the ordinance, signed by Punjab governor, section 27 and 34A of the Forest Act 1927 has been repealed and subsection 3 introduced. This gives the provincial government the authority, after approval from the provincial cabinet, to legalise conversion of a reserve forest or any part of a reserved forestland to meet other land-based objectives, especially national projects of strategic importance. With the province of Punjab losing its forest cover at a rate of 2,900 hectare per annum, the new amendment can prove disastrous for forests across the province.

According to a survey conducted by the Landcover Atlas of Pakistan and published by the Pakistan Forest Institute in 2012, the forest cover in Punjab has dropped down from 0.608 million hectare to 0.550 million hectare since 1992. It further pinpoints the fact that the province lags behind in meeting the international standards of forest cover with only 4.1 per cent of its total land being covered by forests.

It is pertinent to mention here that at present only five per cent of the total land in the country has forests which fall behind the international standards that require countries to have at least 25 per cent of the total land in the country with forests. Lack of governance and mismanaged development is exacerbating the negative impacts of having a scant forest cover. This has resulted in Pakistan to be placed among 55 other countries that have been categorised as having a slim forest cover.

The Punjab government’s move came a month after the landmark agreement at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December where representatives from 195 nations pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their backyards. COP21 marked a defining moment for the global community to come together and collectively show their resolve towards “changing climate change”. The explicit mention of forests in the agreement sent a clear signal to the countries concerned that action has to be taken to halt deforestation. It was also decided that governments have to place this issue high on the domestic political agendas and should no longer be considered a marginal topic.

But as the euphoria of achievements made by the world community at COP21 fades away, WWF-Pakistan Director General Hammad Naqi Khan was of the opinion that, “Pakistan, along with over 190 countries, signed a ground breaking deal on climate change action at COP21. The text clearly acknowledges the significance of forests, and recognises the importance of incentives for reducing harmful emissions from deforestation, and the role of conservation and sustainable management of forests.”

He expressed concern by saying, “The Punjab government’s decision comes as a shock to us following the landmark COP21 agreement according to which Pakistan has pledged its commitment on the international stage.”

Forests are intrinsically linked to climate. Therefore, loss of forest cover and degradation of these natural resources is both the cause and effect of the region’s changing climate. According to UN estimates, approximately one billion people depend directly on forests for their livelihoods, and each year approximately 12 million hectares of forests are destroyed. This loss of forest cover is said to be responsible for roughly 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. These stats echo the high level importance that forests hold and its great potential for ramping up urgent climate change mitigation efforts especially for a climatically stressed and environmentally vulnerable country like Pakistan.

A forest, official on condition of anonymity, said that, “In Punjab alone more than 0.2 million acres of forest land has been allocated to different government institutions and various provincial and federal ministries. In the recent past the forest department, which operates at the whims of politicians, has given away prime forest lands for projects like Danish school for which a considerable amount of tree cover was cut down.” He further said, “Something is cooking, and it is for sure. In 2010, the proposed amendments which were supposed to declare construction on forest lands illegal were put on hold until forest land was allocated to projects such as Danish school. This time around by lifting the ban and repealing the amendments from the Forest Act, I believe the provincial government intends to spread the networks of roads, which will be catastrophic for the environment in the province.”

Under the existing law forest lands can be utilised for the right of way and according to Supreme Court ruling the government is bound to plant 10 trees at some other place against one uprooted tree if it was unavoidable. But, official record reveals that the Punjab chief minister’s special initiative for mass afforestation in Punjab is in limbo. Around 2530.66 acres of land is intended to be planted under this initiative within the periods of activity from 2013-14 and 2017-18.

The seriousness of the provincial government can be gauged from the fact that for the fiscal year 2015-16 less than a billion rupees were earmarked for forests, compounded by the Forests Department apathy and lack of commitment which failed miserably in its plantation drive to plant nine million trees in 2015.

The change of hearts in the Punjab government is in direct contrast to the government’s initiative in 2010 of amending Section 27 and 34-A of the Punjab Forest Act 1927, which was instrumental in the wake of threats posed by climate change. It was also deemed to help achieve the national sustainable development goals for forestry aiming to increase the national forest cover from five to six per cent. Similarly, the penalties in the Forest Act were toothless, ranging from Rs1 to Rs50, and were not proving as a deterrent to the harmful activities carried out in the province’s forests. In 2010 the penalties were raised which provided a breathing space for the forests to replenish it back to health.

The depleted yet standing forests of the province are a sanctuary to many animal species. According to WWF-Pakistan Director Species Conservation Dr Uzma Khan, “The amendment of 2010 in the Forest Act 1927 ended the denotifiction of reserved and protected forests, which was a milestone towards forest conservation in the province. Unfortunately, now it is being revoked which will have detrimental impacts on forest dependent species of Punjab such as the common leopard, grey goral, barking deer, Punjab urial and many species of birds. Many of these species are locally categorised as critically endangered and habitat protection is key to their survival. Human encroachment on the wildlife habitats will exasperate space conflicts between wild animals and people living in local communities.”

The recent promulgated ordinance sounds alarm bells as deforestation removes a vital line of defence against climate change. The future of our climate largely depends on essential carbon dioxide-guzzling forests. These forested lands deserve to be spared the axe. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”

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