Swat Valley attracts millions of tourists every year because of its snow-capped peaks, glistening blue lakes, lush green plateaus and thick forests.
Known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan” for its matching breathtaking scenery, the valley remained the favourite site visited by nearly two million people last year.
Nevertheless, it has lately been in the headlines for massive wildfires that have burned down over 14,000 acres of forest cover during the last three weeks.
Aside from dry weather conditions, officials say many of the fires were set intentionally by the locals in order to benefit from a centuries-old law that permits them to share the ownership of forests with the government.
Shamilat or the law of joint property, which was introduced by the powerful Yusufzai tribe when they captured the Swat Valley in the 16th century, allows the local communities to share the ownership of forests with the government.
In line with the law, they can harvest the empty swathes of forests and use pastures for grazing their livestock in their respective areas.
However, they cannot chop down the trees except for the branches or decayed ones for firewood.
The law, which remained unchanged even during British colonial rule, had also been adopted by Pakistan with some amendments following the incorporation of the former princely state in 1969.
“We have seen an increasing trend of intentional wildfires in recent years in Swat. And the main purpose behind this phenomenon is to get more lands for agriculture,” said Latifur Rahman, a spokesman for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Forest Department.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Rahman said the local people want to increase their agricultural lands due to the increasing population and food requirements.
“For that, fire is the best way to clear the forest lands of trees.
“In their false opinion, trees are less important than agriculture. This is ruining the entire environmental cycle, raising the risks for landslides and flash floods,” he maintained.
Tradition turned law
Mohammad Nafees, who heads the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Peshawar, said Shamilat is actually a centuries-old tribal tradition that had later been given the status of law by the British colonial regime and the Pakistani government.
Nafees said that according to the original Shamilat tradition, rivers, mountains, streams and forests were the joint properties of a tribe.
But after the 1969 incorporation, the government made some changes, declaring forest trees as state property, while the locals were given the right to harvest forest lands and get tree branches for domestic use.
Another unwritten law, he went on to say, allows a farmer whose land touches a mountainous forest to clear the adjoining forest swathe and incorporate that into his piece of land.
Nafees, who authored a thesis titled “Wildfires in Swat Valley”, told Anadolu Agency that intentional fires and negligence have been the two key factors behind increasing deforestation in the scenic valley.
Swat boasted a robust 30 per cent forest cover at the time of independence in 1947 which has gradually been reduced to less than 15pc, he said.
“Currently, only far-flung and tall mountains are left with thick forest cover. Otherwise, the forests on low-altitude mountains have been converted into agricultural lands,” he added.
Currently, 70pc of the forests in Swat fall under the Shamilat law, whereas the remaining 30pc are either in the state’s control or privately owned.
Firefighters backed by army helicopters are still struggling to douse the raging fires in the Chir pine-laden forests in Swat and adjoining districts of Shangla and Buner.
The wind-whipped blazes, according to the Forest Department, have burned down thousands of trees and killed several rare species of birds and animals.
At least four people, including three women, were killed in a wildfire in Shangla district last week.
The latest Forest Department report says that over 200 wildfires have been reported in KP, mainly in Swat, Shangla and Buner districts.
Out of 210 wildfires, the report said 55 were started intentionally by the local people, while only 12 were due to the dry weather conditions. The causes of the remaining 143 blazes are still being investigated.
Nearly two dozen locals, it added, have been arrested on the charge of intentionally setting the forests on fire over the past three weeks.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Waseem Khan, the chief forest officer of Swat, said 95pc of the fires that have been reported from the forests that fall either under Shamilat or are privately owned.
He cited “uncontrolled” tourism, locals’ “recklessness” and lightning as other triggering agents for the wildfires, which he said are a long-running problem.
“Apart from intentional fires, many wildfires occur due to negligence of locals and tourists,” Khan noted.
“In many cases, locals try to clear the high-altitude pastures and forest swathes of rotten and dry grass through controlled burning. But this controlled burning sometimes goes uncontrolled and engulfs the entire forest,” he said.
Undermining government’s forestation efforts
Rahman said the government will impose heavy fines along with jail terms on suspects found to be involved in the intentional fires.
Acknowledging a lack of implementation of the criminal laws in the past, he said a person involved in an intentional fire can be fined up to Rs100,000 for each tree along with a jail term of up to two years.
Pakistan is one of the top 10 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.
The latest spree of wildfires has undermined the flagship 10 Billion Tree Tsunami project of former prime minister Imran Khan. The ambitious tree plantation project, which aims to restore the country’s fast-depleting forest cover, has earned recognition from the UN as well.
Pakistan last year hosted World Environment Day celebrations for the first time in its history in partnership with the UN Environment Programme.