By: Ifrah Shaukat
Although objectives and scope of forest management diversified and extended before the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), its main objective remained merely timber production. Local communities, indigenous peoples and, most importantly, international NGOs speak out to record their concerns regarding a very narrow definition of forestry. Since then, these voices have managed, somehow, to force some governments to take initiatives that may finally reverse the process of damage and bring into focus the need of changes in policy and implementation so as to bring forth devolution in forest management.
In South Asian countries, especially India and Pakistan, forestry has been a complex issue. Both federal and provincial/state governments have been controlling forestry activities, but federal government has an overruling authority as a policymaking body. This led to the centralization of the forests which, in turn, made them merely a commodity. This policy had tumbling effects on the forests in different countries of the region.
In Pakistan, authorities claim that there is no lack of initiatives and policies that ensure good forest management in practice as they also involve non-foresters in decision-making processes. However, many research forums have warned that Asia’s forests are facing degradation at an unprecedented fast pace. Forest land alienation from the forest-users, over-dependency on technocracy and policing, and commercial overexploitation are some major threats to the very existence of the forests.
Working of the forestry sector depends considerably on the institutional context and its structure along with the prevalent policies. In Pakistan, the most destructive ramification of the centralization of forestry was the alienation of the people from their lands which ensued in situations that were tragic for forests and their quality. For instance, as more and more land was seized by the government, the tracts available for the people dependent on the shifting cultivation shrank. The only option left for those people was to progressively reduce the fallow period which ultimately resulted into forest-degradation and land-erosion. Another consequence of the alienation is the continuous loss of forest knowledge among local people as well as their culture as both of these were inevitably linked with each other.
Besides this, centralization of forests spurred governments to kick-start a number of uneconomic forest management initiatives to increase the forest productivity and to meet the ever-increasing demand of timber in national and international markets. The government has increased manifolds the budgetary allocations to this sector (like Green Pakistan project) instead of resurrecting and revitalizing the existing projects like South Punjab Forest Company. This initiative includes plantation of fast-growing species, having more annual timber productivity than the natural reproducing of forests, on public-private mode so that logging pressure on the natural forests can be reduced.
According to FAO estimates, millions of dollars have been invested in Pakistan to grow new forests while existing ones are getting gradually degraded and are being converted to alternate use. On top of it, such investments largely proved uneconomic, and plant saplings were left to die, thus making most of the investments unproductive. In addition, monitoring of these initiatives like increasing the forest police force proved costly as deforestation rate increased, and corruption in the department also became rampant.
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