Sometimes life hits you like a boulder. Literally.
“My family was sound asleep when one night, the roar of boulders woke me up,” narrates 55-year-old Muhammad Ali, resident of a village named Guro Juglote, situated some 25 kilometres away from Gilgit city. Before he knew it, a boulder had smashed into the walls of his house. “My children, my wife and I survived, but the landslide wrecked our home, cultivable land, and killed my cattle.”
That night, misfortune struck not one house but six. Such was the intensity of the landslide that five houses were completely wrecked, the agricultural land of all six houses was lost, the water channels used to their farm land were destroyed as were any walkways to their houses.
Mafias felling forests and stealing wood have triggered a larger environmental catastrophe in Gilgit-Baltistan — landslides, flash floods, disturbed ecosystems, loss of lives and livelihoods. In a nutshell, the beauty of Pakistan’s most picturesque province is at stake
With nothing in hand and a way of life obliterated, Ali decided to migrate from the village to Gilgit town in order to protect his family.
“The cost of living in the city is very expensive,” says Ali. “I work with a contractor now, live in a rented home, and purchase milk and vegetables from the market. All these items were either grown or produced in our home.”
While Ali’s new realities have hit him hard, what he protests is that this tragedy is not of his making nor was it the fate that he foresaw for his children. Landslides in the area are a man-made phenomenon, brought about by excessive deforestation. And in Gilgit-Baltistan, there is a timber mafia operating that has been cutting down trees without any regard for the life that they are destroying.
Gilgit-Baltistan encompasses an area of 72,971 square kilometres. The mighty River Indus cuts through the province and is a major source of potable water and irrigation for the local populace. Its topography consists of mountains and water sinks, source lakes and riverines, the world’s largest glaciers, and indeed, forests. Forest cover in Gilgit-Baltistan is roughly estimated at four percent while about five percent of the land is covered in forest plantations. It is this wood that the mafia is after.
But in a twist of sorts, the timber mafia is dependent on status quo to prevail at policy level. Although the forests are in Gilgit-Baltistan, policy governing them comes from Islamabad. Some allege that the timber mafia enjoys influence in the government and the bureaucracy, which enables them to have policies skewed in their favour. Others point to this influence penetrating into the lower level, where local guards are often bribed to show illegal timber as legal.
This theory is backed by the sum of money changing hands. The timber mafia only pay around 25 rupees per cubic foot to the local forest owners. They sell the same timber onwards for anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 per cubic foot.
In short: a whopping profit of 11,900 percent and stakes that go beyond money.
TIMBER (POLICY) FOR ALL
The Karakoram Highway when it was first constructed was hailed as a game-changer. Gilgit-Baltistan was largely landlocked and inhabitants of this region suffered on account of little access to or communication with the rest of the country. After the highway was opened to the public in 1979, the region was discovered by the world at large. And while the Karakoram Highway brought tourists and prosperity to the region, it also brought much trouble for the locals.
Back when the highway was inaugurated, then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto approved a six-year timber policy for the legal harvesting of trees in private forests in Diamer district. Under this policy, old and mature trees could legally be felled. Wood from these trees could then be sold by locals to earn some money or to use as firewood, albeit after paying some royalty to the government.
This policy continued in various forms till 1993 as successive federal governments saw no need to change the status quo. Taking advantage of forest-cutting schemes under this policy, the timber mafia entered Gilgit-Baltistan. Not only did they start felling forests but they also transported the wood to other parts of the country.
All this while, the government either acted as a bystander or a willing participant in Gilgit-Baltistan’s deforestation.
In 1988 and 1989, for example, during the tenure of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government, three million cubic feet of wood was reported illegally cut in Diamer. But the federal government allowed for its legal transportation against payment of royalty to the government.
In a twist of sorts, the timber mafia is dependent on status quo to prevail at policy level. Although the forests are in Gilgit-Baltistan, policy governing them comes from Islamabad … The timber mafia only pay around 25 rupees per cubic foot to the local forest owners. They sell the same timber onwards for anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 per cubic foot. In short: a whopping profit of 11,900 percent and stakes that go beyond money.
Ahmed Khan, a resident of Diamer, recalls that this illegal felling and onwards trade in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought little dividend for those who owned forest land.
“Forest owners were paid a little amount,” he explains, “and once money changed hands, the trees were cut and transported to other areas.”
Till that time, Diamer’s forest cover was thick, illegal felling was not a matter of routine, and locals depended on forests for their source of income.
In Diamer district, forests are owned by local communities under a deal signed by the Government of Pakistan in 1952. In the other nine districts — Hunza, Nagar, Ghizer, Astore, Skardu, Ghanche, Karmang, and Shigar — forest land is owned by the government.
Irrespective of ownership, forests are critical to the ecosystem of locals across the province. Some would graze their cattle there, others would collect fruits and sell it in the market. Many would also collect firewood from old trees. All these practices were protected by law. But with the mafia entering the region, these indigenous practices shrivelled.
Another local from Chilas echoes the time-frame provided by Khan. He describes that trees would often be chopped without any permission. The government, on the other hand, claimed that since the wood had already been chopped, it could be transported. No penalties were imposed nor was any royalty received.
In 1993, Moin Qureshi assumed responsibilities of caretaker prime minister. In his short tenure, Qureshi slapped a ban on cutting trees and smuggling wood from what is today Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Despite the ban imposed by Qureshi, the illegal cutting of trees and smuggling of wood carried on with impunity. After every three or four years, successive federal governments in the name of “timber disposal policy” gave legal license to the timber mafia to fell and transport wood from private and reserved forest areas in Gilgil-Baltistan.
The first to do this was the government of Nawaz Sharif (in his second tenure). His government’s timber disposal policy explained that flash floods had wreaked havoc in the region, and so, trees that had been damaged could be felled and sold. An upper felling limit of 12 million cubic feet of wood was set — this was the maximum that could be transported out of Gilgit-Baltistan. Royalty rates were set at 50 rupees per cubic foot.
What happened in practice, though, was that the timber mafia used the cover of this policy to fell more trees. The upper limit was routinely flouted.
UPPER LIMIT (IN CUBIC FEET) OF WOOD THAT CAN BE FELLED AND TRANSPORTED OUT OF GILGIT, AS PER PM ABBASI’S NEW POLICY
In 1998, a new policy was instituted. The upper limit went to 20 million cubic feet of wood while the royalty remained the same, 50 rupees per cubic feet. Then came General Pervez Musharraf’s policy in 2004, which pushed the upper limit to 22 million cubic feet of wood while retaining the same royalty rate. In 2013, the upper limit was set at 26 million cubic feet by the Raja Pervaiz Ashraf-led government.
On October 25 this year, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Gilgit-Baltistan to chair the meeting of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council. Speaking at a public gathering, the PM announced the approval of a timber disposal policy as the chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council. In the new rules, the upper limit of felling trees has been nudged upwards to 27 million cubic feet.
Declaring that the illegal cutting of forests cannot be legalised any more, PM Abbasi described the new policy as “the last amnesty scheme” for the felling and transportation of wood from the region. If history is any indication, these may be empty words.
AN APOCALYPSE IN THE MAKING
Landslides are a matter of routine in Gilgit-Baltistan. Environmentalists attribute it to climate change, which in turn, is caused locally by deforestation. The result of landslides, for example, is the formation of the Attabad Lake in 2010. To recap: a landslide buried 19 lives in Shishkat village and formed the artificial lake at Hunza River. It also displaced many families living in Attabad, Shishkatand other villages. Over 20 kilometres of the Karakoram Highway were left inundated, blocking the access of about 25,000 people living in Gojal valley of upper Hunza.
In a nutshell, this is but one manifestation of the illegal felling of forests in Gilgit-Baltistan. And it is certainly not the last.
Recent reports issued by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) have surfaced to declare that a mountain in district Nagar had developed cracks and started to sink. This poses a grave danger to 380 households in Miacher Village, posing an Attabad-like danger to the inhabitants. One of the NDMA reports declares that a major landslide can bury the village and block the Hunza River and the Karakorum Highway.
Locals from the Miacher Village say that a landslide has already damaged five houses. Residents of 35 other houses have been evacuated and moved to safer locations.
RAGE OF THE RIVER
Near the banks of the River Nagar is a small village named Harchi. It is Ali Haider’s ancestral village but every summer, his patience and courage are both tested.
“During the summer, erosion of land happens,” explains Haider, “which brings the river closer to our house.”
The villager from Harchi narrates how one house in the village has already been submerged because of river intrusion. “Our elders used to tell us that trees along the banks of the river were the main barrier against land erosion,” narrates Haider. “In the absence of trees, the river erodes the land.”
A similar tale is told by residents of Gilgit-Baltistan’s Bagrote area.
“Flash floods in 2012 wrecked our village,” recalls Asghar Shah, a resident of Bagrote. “Many households in my village migrated to Danyor after the floods inundated their homes, agriculture land and the link road out of the village.”
Shah claims that landslides in Bagrote are at least a decade-old phenomenon but their frequency has increased manifold in recent times. Like people in other parts of the region, locals in Bagrote also depend economically on cultivation, grazing cattle, and selling dry fruits in the market. They get their milk, curd and butter from their cattle, and these milk products are often sold at nearby markets to earn more money. But increasing flash floods and snow avalanches have caused vanishing pastures and affected agriculture lands.
“Ten families from my village of Bagrote have left their property because of the insecurity of life and livelihood,” says Shah. “In Danyor, they have had to change professions and start a different life.”
CHILGHOZAS IN PERIL
Cultivating the mighty chilghoza, or pine nut, is a demanding task. Chilghoza trees are only found in a particular climate, under certain conditions. Diamer is is one of these select few areas conducive to growing chilghozas.
Recent reports issued by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) have surfaced to declare that a mountain in district Nagar had developed cracks and started to sink. This poses a grave danger to 380 households in Miacher Village, posing an Attabad-like danger to the inhabitants … Locals from the Miacher Village say that a landslide has already damaged five houses. Residents of 35 other houses have been evacuated and moved to safer locations.
“For many years, growing chilghozas was a source of income for many locals,” explains Meraj Alam, a resident of Goharabad village in Diamer district. “One household can earn up to one hundred thousand rupees in one season just selling chilghoza in Diamer district.”
Such employment was enabled by thick forest cover providing the required climate to chilghoza trees. But the felling of forests in the district has affected the production of chilghoza fruit in the district.
“The production of chilghoza fruit nuts has been on the decline for many years,” says Alam. “And as a result, it has reduced poor people’s income.”
Chilghozas are at risk since greater deforestation has resulted in a temperature-precipitation imbalance. Nature has been upset and there is no redress.
Similarly the production of cherries and apricots has been adversely affected. In fact it is more accurate to say that fruit production has fallen across the region. The burden of deforestation is therefore being borne by the poor in Gilgit-Baltistan.
NATURE ABHORRS A VACUUM
Tanveer Ahmed is a resident of Minimarg, one of the villages located in the Astore District of Gilgit-Baltistan, situated near the Line of Control with India. The green belt in Minimarg village remained an attraction for tourists for many years while the locals used it to graze their cattle.
In the winters, as temperatures fall to minus six or seven Celsius, locals would collect firewood from the green belt too. This was their only source of energy to meet in such harsh temperatures. But as the timber mafia reached Astore, trees in the green belt started vanishing. Without any firewood, locals now have no option but to fell young trees and fruit trees.
Irrespective of who cuts timber, what is undeniable is that nature’s balance has brutally been upset. Forests serve as a habitat for wildlife which feeds on other animals. This too has been upset. In a recent incident, a snow leopard moving down from mountains reportedly killed at least 68 sheep and goats in the Dhee area of Khunjerab National Park in upper Hunza. The management of the Khunjerab Village Organization explain that the sheep and goats were all owned by local shepherds.
STEMMING THE SLIDE
Whether its landslides, flash flooding, loss of precious fruit, or an imbalance in nature’s ecosystem, all roads return to the question of deforestation. The more trees that are cut, the greater is the magnitude of disaster that is looming.
“There is no ban on cutting of trees in Gilgit-Baltistan,” proclaims Ali Muhammad, a resident of Harmosh valley. “The forest staff does not perform its duty because they are not regular employees and they are not paid salaries.”
As a result, claims Muhammad, the volunteers deployed on duty end up joining forces with the timber mafia. Locals have complained to the forest department but their protests have so far fallen on deaf ears.
“About a year ago, I submitted a complaint with the forest department, identifying people involved in illegal cutting of trees in my village,” says Muhammad. “Instead of facilitating me, department officials started harassing me.”
On the other hand, Gilgit-Baltistan’s Forests, Wildlife and Environment Department Conservator Walayat Noor claims that his department is doing their best to curb the menace of illegal felling and smuggling of forest wood despite their limited resources.
“The geography is vast but forest officials have no transportation and no weapons either to counter the timber mafia,” says Noor.
The conservator protests that due to a shortage of staff, funds, and the unavailability of facilities, the practice of daily checks on forest land cannot be instituted.
“Not a single post has been created in the forest department over the last 10 years,” says Noor. “There is one conservator for forests, wildlife and environment in Gilgit-Baltistan while three such posts exist in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. One conservator cannot possibly oversee matters across the region without staff and facilities.”
Then there is the problem of security — the mafia is armed but government officials are sitting ducks.
“Once I was personally taking action against a mafia for illegal cutting of forests in Diamer but I was shot at,” says the forest official. “The local administration and police don’t cooperate with the forest department whenever we initiate action against the timber mafia.”
To compound matters, not a single gun has been officially issued to the Gilgit-Baltistan forest department to counter the timber mafia. As a result, forest officials are held hostage to the mafia’s demands.
Meanwhile, due to the quality of wood extracted from Gilgit-Baltistan, the demand of wood always remains very high. One of the issues plaguing the system is a lack of transparency in issuing permits to fell trees. Until recently, the timber mafia was able to work freely by bribing local people and officials, claim environmentalists, and paying a higher rate for wood than the government. This situation is unsustainable in the long run.
“When we were little, our elders would tell us that the forest will always protect us from natural disasters,” says Guro Juglote’s Muhammad Ali. “There was no fear of landslides. If some rocks or boulders did make their way down from the mountaintop, the trees would turn into barriers for the village.”
Gilgit-Baltistan’s past is another country. And with the timber mafia operating with impunity, its present is in limbo and future is in the air.