Gilgit-Baltistan: International Mountains Day

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Every 11th day of December from the year 2003 and onwards, the United Nations had officially announced this day to be celebrated as the international mountain day (IMD). The theme for this year’s international mountain day is “Mountains and Forests”.

Pakistan is home to one of the most fragile mountain systems in the world. The Karakorum, Himalaya and Hindukush mountain ranges meet at a junction in northern Pakistan. These mountains are also home to natural forests including the alpine, coniferous and sub-tropical pine forests. The spread of indigenous mountain forests is mostly in the upper half of the country. Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir, Kohistan, Chitral, Swat, Dir, Muree, Hazara and Ziarat being an exception in Baluchistan, known to be the 3rd largest juniper forest in the world.

Mountains and forests play an important interconnected role in the ecological system of nature. They are home to some of the endangered species of flora and fauna. Environmental changes are a continuous threat to the existence of some endangered species in the case of northern areas for e.g. Snow leopard, Screw Horned Marhkor, Himalayan Ibex, Urial, Blue sheep, Marco Polo Sheep, Brown Bear and the Tibetan wolf. Reckless cutting down of trees, overgrazing, poaching not only lessens the scenic beauty but can also damage the habitat of these animals, resulting in disturbance in their food chains. Biodiversity of these areas affected once could easily bring down the potential of eco-tourism in these areas. Livelihoods of the indigenous mountain communities also depend on these mountains and on the natural forests. Since ancient times the mountain communities have also exploited the valuable natural mountain forest reserves for their own consumption in order to fulfil their needs of timber, firewood and minor traditional farming wood products.

Pakistan inherited only about 5 percent of area under forests of British India. Northern Areas, KP and Azad Jammu Kashmir account for nearly about 52 percent of Pakistan’s forest reserves (statistics 1993) scattered over mountainous terrain. From 1947 there has been an incremental rise in the rate at which deforestation is taking place. The current rate of cutting down of trees is indeed alarming. Flash floods have taken place as a result and recent example is 2010 floods. This has caused large scale land erosion and soil degradation in many areas, such as the floods of August 2010 to which I was a witness myself in the mountainous Kohistan region damaging physical infrastructure and businesses. This incident had caused the disruption in road linkages of the Karakorum highway for more than 40-day, leading to economic losses for the whole region. From the town of Gilgit to Rawalpindi, I did change 6 public transport vehicles and travelled for 4-hour by foot. I observed trucks loaded with stinking rotten potato for table, which was stranded on the KKH. This environmental damage event off course had negative impact on the economic activities of people of the country.

Tree roots have a vital role in stabilising the soil, particularly on hill slopes helping in controlling soil erosion. The juniper forest in Ziarat is one of the largest juniper forests in the world, some trees dated as old as 4000 years old. These trees over the years have faced numerous problems of plant diseases, alarming cutting rate of trees and neglect by the concerned officials. These forests are being cut at an alarming rate, to supply wood to the major cities and town down country. Timber prices are currently twice the world average in Pakistan and timber has become a valuable commodity. According to reports due to increase in population and fuel wood consumption the country ranked 2nd in cutting down of trees in the world. Politicians, bureaucrats, contractors and some forest officials tend to form informal networks that give them immunity from forest laws and a free hand to undertake forest operations at their own discretion. One example is that of Kohistan District where the timber mafia is actively involved in politically influencing the timber industry by offering bribes and percentage in the profit share. The trees are converted into rough-hewn scants to get transported out of the far flung remote forests, leading to the wastage of more than 50 percent of the wood causing commercial exploitation.

Scientists believe that environmental changes are going to hit most mountain species, the flora and fauna. It is a “now or never” situation for us, because more than half of our forest reserves are in the mountain areas under constant environmental threat. The issue of forestry should be addressed seriously both at the government policy levels in order to minimise the loopholes in the administrative set up. The provincial department of forestry and communities should devise monitoring mechanisms at local level for sustainable forest management. The most serious forest loss is, however, the deliberate over-cutting by local forest contractors to make up for having secured contracts through bidding very high prices in the open auction. The provincial level should utilise the allocated budget with proper checks and balance mechanism. Participatory approach towards the general public importance should be given towards including environmental issues in primary school curriculum too invoke the interest of students and care for the environment. Environmental impact assessment should be carried out at all cost before the initiation of mega projects such as construction of dams, mining activities or other medium and large scale industries. In my opinion to create environment consciousness effective campaigns should be arranged in schools, colleges and universities by the key stakeholders.

At large scale afforestation and plantation programmes shall be introduced with the support of community organisations. Ten Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) have formed 266,815 local level organisations and 4.6 million local people are the members of these organisations. Besides undertaking diverse activities, planting trees by the members is one of the essential parts of the program. The World Bank (WB) report 2002 reveals that in 20-year organised communities with the support of AKRSP planted 40 million trees in the mountains of Pakistan. FHIES 1991 report shows that where the households were organised, they planted 310 percent more trees than those villages, where there were no village organisations.

This method of participatory approach adopted by RSPs can be replicated in other programmes/ civil society organisations and local communities could be involved in sustainable plantation before the sleeping giant of global warming turns our part of the world into absolute menace.

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