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Balochistan’s Juniper Forests | Saving the ‘Living Fossil’ from Extinction

Balochistan juniper forests

The relationship of man with the forests is as old as the human history itself. This relation has been akin to that what man, today, has with the big cities. It were the forests that provided man with food to satisfy his hunger, with space to make his abodes, with clothes to adorn his body, with medicinal plants to get cured of ailments, with sceneries to relish the beauties of nature, with climate to stay healthy and with environment and space for social interactions. But, with the passage of time, the continual evolution process compelled man to leave forests and dwell on the riverbanks. Hence, this centuries-old bond began to weaken and the humans, in general, became indifferent to this gift of the nature. So, the tree, which once was a guarantee of the survival of life on earth, is being fast consumed in the fire of human needs. On the one hand, every tree that comes in the way of expansion of cities and agriculture fields is being axed, on the other, a soaring demand for wood has endangered the very existence of this gift of the Mother Nature. Amidst these trends, the world is being rapidly unforested. Due to this paced cutting of trees, the phenomenon of rising temperatures has engulfed the earth and has effected a series of climate change events that are turning the oases into deserts and vice versa.

These climatic changes are causing torrential rains, and resultant heavy floods, at some places while people in many areas are dying for a single drop of water. If the duration of winter days and nights is altering, then the period of scorching heat is also getting prolonged; and above all, the predictions about a rise in sea levels are also ubiquitous.

Trees, undoubtedly, are an invaluable gift of the Mother Nature. This sublime creation of the Almighty, besides fulfilling physical and biological needs of humans and other living organisms, is also instrumental to

protecting the environment. But, unfortunately, these friends of human beings and the environment are being mindlessly, and mercilessly, axed.

The countries which realize their significance and prioritize their protection are among the most prosperous ones as they have ‘immunized’ themselves against colossal losses as they are now less prone to natural calamities caused mostly by the paucity of forests. On the contrary, those still hell bent on destroying this treasure are, or will be soon, paying the price. Unfortunately, Pakistan is also in the latter group, and is fast-forwarding to be embroiled in numerous problems. The worst hit province of Pakistan in this regard is Balochistan where only 1.7 percent of its total area is forested. The most prominent forests in Balochistan are those of junipers.

Balochistan juniper forests 1According to the fifth Census, juniper forests are found mainly in six districts of Balochistan namely: Ziarat, Loralai, Kila Saifullah, Pishin, Quetta and Kalat. As regards the total area of these forests, there seems no consensus among experts. For instance, a report published in 1955 put the figure at 200 square miles (128,000 acres); a 1968 publication on the similar subject reported it to be 329,000 acres; another report (1981) concluded that it was actually 250,000 acres, and later in 1997, a study measured the area occupied by junipers to be 141,000 acres. This warrants a special attention of governmental and non-governmental organizations, especially those campaigning for better environment and protection of natural resources. Moreover, most researches available on the subject are outdated and they contain only limited information and there is also a sheer lack of unanimity in the data. In Balochistan, juniper forests are located in two mountain ranges namely Toba Kakar and Central Brahui. The Toba Kakar range, which forms a part of Himalayas, is located in Koh-i-Sufaid and lies in areas like Zhob and Pishin. The upper Toba Kakar Range, which lies in Kila Saifullah and Pishin, is dotted with juniper forests. Likewise, the mountains of Central Brahui Range run parallel from the north of Quetta to the south of Kalat. This range of steep valleys also hosts the highest peaks of the province including Khilafat Hills, Zarghun Ghar, Koh-i-Takatu, Koh-i-Maran and Harboi.

In a study entitled “Juniper Forests in Balochistan,” International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported 25 types of junipers around the world out of which 4 are found in the Himalayas in Pakistan and India and one of these, Excelsa juniper, is found in Balochistan. Apart from Pakistan, juniper forests are found in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Oman, Syria, Turkey, Russia (The Balkans, Armenia, etc.), Greece, Yugoslavia, United States, Mexico and Switzerland. Another report lists 54 species of junipers among which six, including Juniperus excelsa, are found in Pakistan.

In Balochistan, most part of juniper forests is located in surroundings areas of district Ziarat. The Ziarat Juniper Forest is Pakistan’s largest, and the world’s second largest, after California. The second largest of the country is in Zarghoon, and the third in Harboi (Kalat). This region forms the biggest tract of land occupied by the juniper forests in Balochistan.

Juniper trees grow in less humid areas located at an elevation of 7000-8000 feet above sea level and having an average annual rainfall of 200-400 millimetres. Balochistan’s juniper forests are basically of open type with male and female trees scattered at a certain distance. On average, per hectare ratio of trees — of both genders — is 28. Owing to slower growth rates, the junipers are counted among the most primitive in the world. Average annual growth of a juniper tree is 25 mm in length and 1 mm in breadth. Many trees in Balochistan are as old as 5000-7000 years.
These old trees are an excellent source of information about climate and environment of the earth in the past. These forests are highly significant as the biggest population of Excelsa Polycardos is found here. For this reason, UNESCO’s International Coordinating Council of Man and Biosphere (ICCMAB) Programme has declared Ziarat Juniper Forest the second Biosphere Reserve and has included it in its World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

According to National Conservation Strategy, Balochistan’s juniper forests are the most endangered ecosystem in Pakistan. This ecosystem plays a vital role in sucking carbon dioxide — a major cause of global warming — out of the atmosphere. Besides environmental worth, it is important also in terms of economy as it has the potential to become a hub of medicinal plants and a world heritage site that would attract national and international tourism. Its import is further highlighted with the fact that it forms an ecosystem that is found only in semi-arid mountain ranges. Despite a slower growth, it is still the most suitable species with regard to local conditions. It’s an important watershed (a ridge of land that separates two adjacent river systems) that makes a good source of water. In addition, it also helps water availability in other arid areas and increase humidity in air; thus, reducing the aridity and preventing soil erosion. The trees make a good source of fuel and wood to be used for different purposes. They are crucial for gaming animals and for enhancing local tourism.

With prudent use of juniper forests, we actually abide by a number of international conventions including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Heritage Convention, the Convention to Combat Desertification, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention), etc.

Preserving the juniper forests is indispensable to the survival of local economy and the environment we live in. Due to limited number of other forest types in Balochistan, the junipers are overly relied on by humans and animals. Excessive cutting of juniper trees for wood and fodder, imprudent land exploitation, natural plant infestations, limited germination capability of juniper seeds, and droughts are among the factors that have threatened even the very existence of these forests. The population of six juniper-related districts has exceeded three million between 1988 and 2014 showing a growth of 59.68 percent. Nearly 29 percent of Balochistan’s population is settled in these districts and the population density here is 86 as against 30 for the whole province. Moreover, in more than 64 percent of households of the region, juniper logs are used as firewood.

Under the Balochistan Forest Regulation (Amendment) Act, 1974, sawing of juniper trees is prohibited; people can only collect deadwood. But, still, hundreds of trees are illegally cut and stolen due to which the province is being deprived of its invaluable asset. An IUCN report puts the average annual need of a household in this region at 36-120 mounds, the most part of which is acquired from juniper forests. Another factor that is taking a heavy toll on the junipers is the presence of multitudes of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. They use these forests to meet not only their own needs but also of their livestock. According to the Forestry Sector Master Plan (FSMP) for Balochistan, drawn up by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), the rural populace uses the juniper wood absolutely free and since other sources may cost them money, therefore, they don’t want to use those.

The principal reason behind this is, perhaps, the omnipresent poverty in juniper-related districts. The World Bank’s Country Partnership Strategy (CPS) for Pakistan 2003-2005 suggested that almost 24 percent of people in this region are facing an abject poverty. So, they rely on natural resources to meet their energy and other requirements. As regards, alternate sources of energy, we find that districts like Quetta, Ziarat, Kalat and Pishin have the provision of natural gas but it is limited mostly to district headquarters; thus compelling other residents of the region to rely on the junipers. If illegal axing and theft of junipers goes on unchecked, the earth will soon be becoming treeless.

Junipers grow slowly because 90 percent of its seeds are incapable of germination; and out of the remaining merely 1 percent are fit for reproduction. It is actually because of a lesser quantity of pollen in them. The pollen of juniper seeds can disperse only to a short distance and most of this falls within a distance of only 30 metres from its source. Moreover, the rate of survival of young plants is also marginal and a big reason for this is the excessive grazing of animals. According to the “Web-Document January 2015” of Balochistan’s Livestock & Dairy Development Department, the total sheep population in districts having juniper forests exceeds 81,19,600; far more than that of the humans. These forests, and the pastures attached to them, serve as a main source of fodder for animals. Animals grazing in these lands eat up young plants thus reducing not only their numbers but in the process also harm the vegetative cover of the region. Resultantly, the phenomenon of soil erosion takes place and signs of looming droughts also become visible. A healthy vegetative cover causes rains and also prevents the waste of rainwater that is absorbed by the earth which increases soil fertility.

The anthropogenic change in this natural system results in droughts that today are among the gravest problems faced by Balochistan. Areas with junipers previously remained snow-covered for, at least, 3-4 months and the young plants beneath the snow remained beyond the reach of animals. But, prolonged severe droughts have rendered animals more dependent on these forests. This is hampering the growth of junipers as only the older trees are left behind; the majority of which serve the humans amidst extreme vagaries of the weather.

Man cannot endure the vagaries of the weather for a long time. So, he resorts to using these trees, underneath which he sits in summers to relish the sweet shadow in scorching summers, as firewood to keep him warm in winters. A big reason behind this now-fair, now-cruel treatment is the chilly weather in which man remains in search of warmth and cosiness.

Save Loralai, all juniper-related districts have winters for as long as six months out of which four months are marked with average temperatures below zero. So, people knock down trees to acquire firewood for their consumption.

But, when there is drought, the lives of those living in arid regions are rendered miserable. The pre-drought annual rainfall (1960-1990) in these districts, except Loralai with 398 millimetres, was 260 millimetres. In dry areas, the problems have further aggravated as people have started relying on the underground water sources in order to meet their water needs. This effects a steep fall in water table as these areas are hit by acute paucity of rains; and even if there are little, the rainwater is wasted because of the deteriorating vegetative cover. It is extremely detrimental to the very existence of already-endangered forests and other life-forms because the forests can’t get sufficient water from their surroundings or underground sources.

Balochistan juniper forests 2All the above assertions are based on ground realities as these forests are slowly — but steadily — drying and the trees that remained verdant for years are now getting pale and their immune system, too, is getting attenuated. The loss of immunity is caused by an infestation namely mistletoe, which, according to a renowned botanist Dr Atta Mohammad Sarangzai, is caused by “a parasitic plant that can grow into and use the sugars of the host tree. Within a period of 25-30 years, mistletoe completely dries up a healthy juniper tree. The seeds of this plant get released from its shell at a speed of nearly 60 km/h and get stuck to other trees within a range of 45-50 feet.” Furthermore, an IUCN report says that mistletoe is mostly found in older trees because it is scarcely observed in plants having a length and breadth of 10 and 30 centimetres respectively. No cure to this disease has been discovered yet and the lone solution is knocking down the affected trees. In Pakistan, mistletoe was first discovered in 1970 when the scientists at Pakistan Forest Institute (PFI) conducted a research in order to ascertain the causes behind the death of juniper trees. Another report entitled “Conservation of Juniper Forests in Balochistan” found that in 1993, this disease was spread over an area of 15 square miles (9600 acres) in Sanamana and Chasnak valleys. Out of an average 20 trees per hectare, 3 were infested with this disease. The total number of mistletoe-affected juniper trees was approximately 30000 with a death rate of 4-14 percent per annum. The report further suggested that to thwart its spread, cutting nearly 30000 trees had become inevitable. Previously, as per the PFI recommendations, nearly 11000 trees and 14000 branches of affected trees in the said valleys were chopped off and sold as firewood between 1979 and 1983.

Yet another PFI study in 1993 revealed that after nearly a decade of the abovementioned pruning of the infested trees, the disease had returned thereby again affecting 36-50 percent of the said lot of trees. This re-emergence of the infestation was actually the result of the failure in properly disposing of the plagued stuff as the contractor had left nearly half of that on the site so as to cut transportation cost. According to the then-Forest Officer deputed at the site, a budget of Rs. 4.5 million, at least, was required to perform the task properly, which was not requisitely provided.

If we do an in-depth analysis of the basic problems faced by juniper forests along with that of the threats thereof, we find that an ever-increasing inhabitation of human population as well as the location of these forests within human access is proving apocalyptic for the forests. Moreover, a changed lifestyle of the populace is also putting a heavy burden on the forest resources. A host of factors can be ascribed to this imbroglio. Among them, extensive grazing of animals, cutting of verdant branches, felling of trees for firewood and for fencing of gardens, fields, pens, as well as other building purposes are the most prominent. These are giving birth to further ills like soil-erosion-caused lowering of water table, deterioration of vegetative cover that may lead to a lesser access to underground water, natural infestations, wildfires, increasing desertification, falling watershed capacity, less gaming opportunities, shrinking grass and herb production, and, above all, a sheer lack of a sense of ownership, are becoming prevalent day by day. This burden will keep on becoming ever-more crippling unless the local people are provided with alternate ways and means of living, the provision of which must be made in a way that the needs of the local populace are fulfilled.

According to a survey conducted by Balochistan Natural Resource Management Project’s Management Plan of Ziarat Juniper Forest on the needs of people living in areas with juniper forests, the two fundamental needs of these people are related to wood and the third one is about grazing lands. These factors are the main contributors to the threat faced by junipers at present. In his report entitled: “The Quest for Sustainable Management of Juniper Forests in Balochistan,” published in March 2000, the author G.M. Khattak after taking into consideration factors like, growth of juniper-dependent population, increased demand for wood, limited growth of juniper forests as well as the use of the existing ones as grazing lands concluded that the juniper forests can vanish from the land of Balochistan in 23 years from now. And, if we take into account drought and natural forest infestations, then these forests seem to be under an acute threat.

Juniper forests are among the most primitive living organisms on the face of the earth but they are fast-forwarding toward extinction due to our improvidence and myopic thinking. But, we still are not ready to come out of slumber and the trees are being knocked down recklessly. And older juniper trees are falling prey to human needs. This issue warrants a serious, and early, action from our side; otherwise this invaluable asset of ours will be sacrificed on the altar of our inanity and senselessness.

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