During the Royal visit by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip to the picturesque Swat valley in 1961, the legend goes, both were quite besotted by the alpine beauty of Swat. They were drawn by its unspoiled rivers, streams, glaciers and dense forests. The society presented a similarly attractive picture: relatively peaceful and law-abiding society – with good social indicators, universal healthcare and education, as well as almost nonexistent crime.
The British Royals offered the ruler, the Wali of Swat, to opt for the status of an autonomous entity under the Crown. The Wali of Swat, Miangul Jahenzeb Khan, it is rumoured, was concerned about his future role; hence he declined a generous offer. Thus, Swat may have given up on the opportunity to be an autonomous state like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Sajid Khan, an activist in Swat today, is concerned about the declining socio-economic conditions and loss of tangible and intangible heritage in his home region. Naturally, he is drawn to reminiscing about the bygone era of the princely state.
The visiting royals bestowed the sobriquet “Switzerland of the East” on Swat – which has stuck to this day. Ironically, when it was subsumed by the Pakistani state in 1969, it virtually lost all privileges and benefits that accrued to an autonomous state. Henceforth alongside “development”, the destruction of its natural resources outweighed the need for a sedate life cherished by its inhabitants. As is the norm in the developing world, sustainable governance by age-old local traditions and community involvement were replaced by a consumerist model. New road networks and a demand for “exotic” tourist destinations irreversibly damaged the idyllic paradise of scenic landscapes. Today its exploding population, commercialization, urban slums and crime rates are comparable with the rest of Pakistan.
The wages of unsustainable development have transformed the once glistening Swat river into a huge garbage reservoir, its water unsuitable for drinking; the rare fish species depleted by untreated sewage draining into it.
Sustainable communities once dependent on sustenance farming and livestock in serene valleys are now impoverished. A tentative case study on the situation before-and after the Swat state era which examines the traditional lifestyle versus modern development, measuring social indicators, could provide the context of emerging threats to the region’s ecology – especially now as new road networks open up pristine valleys and forests to commercial exploitation and degradation. Such a comparative study can serve as a guideline for newly established tribal districts as well. Conservation experts and proponents of sustainable development across the region are wary of the plunder of untapped natural resources and forest reserves by an unrestrained corporate sector with scant concern or safeguards. They watch with trepidation as new threats to the ecosystem and biodiversity emerge – with a long-term adverse impact on the local population.
Already, the once idyllic landscapes and verdant valleys of Abbottabad, the Murree Hills, the Naran and Kaghan valleys, Chitral and the protected Kalash Valley have all fallen prey to unhindered and rapacious development. As weather patterns turn warmer, there is a reduction in crop and fruit yields. Springs and water channels have dried up and harvesting periods have also reduced. In the long run, tourism will suffer too.
Shahzada Siraj-ul-Mulk, an ardent conservationist from Chitral echoes such concerns: “Could you please include Chitral in the list of regions hit by climate change? We have even lesser trees now and the same people that you mentioned have gone on a rampage to fell more than 300-year-old deodar trees. July temperatures here soared to a record high 43 degrees Celsius this year. In my lifetime, we have moved from a life without electric fans to air-conditioning! No one knew of citrus fruit in Chitral – and now you can find oranges, lemons and grapefruits here. Glaciers that I have trekked on have now receded to alarming levels. Last winter, people here were so thrilled when it snowed, although this used to be a normal sight in the good old days.”
Despite tall claims about climate change mitigation measures, there is scant progress on the ground. This is so even with effective legislation that prohibits deforestation and the ADP-funded Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project (BTAP), which has invited controversy about flaws in implementation and monitoring mechanisms.
A study of forest reserves in Swat conducted recently showed the unhindered influence the of timber mafia and ruthless destruction of natural forests, especially, Deodar (Cedar). Talking to local residents it emerged that forest officials, local and down country timber mafias, law enforcement agencies were involved in massive deforestation in different parts of Swat like Kalam and Bahrain and adjoining regions.
Similar destruction can be observed in the picturesque Kumrat valley of the adjoining district, Dir. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government has recently announced a metalled road to Kumrat for tourism.
Ecotourism is a popular buzzword these days but it demands an adequate framework, guidelines and measures for environmental protection. Deforestation, if it continues unabated at the current rate, might soon mean that the last remnants of natural forests will turn into a wasteland – thus giving the opportunity to the Forest Officers to start growing Eucalyptus and other exotic and invasive species, and replacing a priceless barrier against climate change.
Sarhad Conservation Network team members comprising local activists and conservationists recently visited some of these protected forests. In the large Banr forest near the road leading to Mahodand lake, the team took a lot of images of the freshly felled trees and those marked for felling. The team witnessed hundreds of trees massacred – either burnt or trunks slashed in the middle, so as to pave the way for commercial harvesting. make sure to get your house safe, how to care for your locks read here One the best locksmiths websites
Trees marked for ongoing felling spree have their barks removed and branches peeled off to kill them. The aim is to render their trunks hollow. This process requires even burning the roots – so that eventually the tree falls and can be easily cut to pieces.
People from the area affirm that mostly the felling takes place past midnight – involving both locals and outsiders from the timber mafia. There were no officials or forest rangers in sight in these areas. They appear open to all kinds of illegal activities.
Renowned activist and writer from Swat Fazal Khaliq reports widespread destruction apace in almost all dense forests in the Kalam region: namely Banr, Bouyn, Anakar, Ushu, Matiltan, Jalbarn, Jabral and Utror. Lal koh forest in Matta tehsil, home of the incumbent Chief Minister, is also facing the axe.
Khaliq complains that the government is involved in expensive media hype like the Billion Tree Tsunami project, while actually on the ground, the protection of huge forests is forsaken. The universally condemned Eucalyptus species is being planted in hilly areas to show “increased” forest cover. In the long run these will irreversibly damage the ecology of the entire region.
The writer teaches Public Health at Northwest School of Medicine, Peshawar, and is a founding member of Sarhad Conservation Network. Write to him at email@example.com