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The Antiheroes and Villains of Timber Mafia

December 16, 2013 at 10:24 pm | News Desk

writer pictureDr. Moin Uddin

I have been fortunate or geographically advantaged of belonging to GilgitBaltistan. As part of every year summer journey I and my family make our annual pilgrimage to the area of our ancestors. It gives a nice feeling of being home and sharing your memories of growing up in small towns with your metropolitan English speaking children. An annual opportunity of familiarizing your generation Z kids with mountains and drinking water from natural springs away from iPods and iPads and of course the wifi. DSCN3641

Karakoram Highway known as KKH has been our main route. Every year we try our luck through the longer route of KKH Abbotabad,  Mansehra , Besham and Chilas. Chilas was not a well-known town sometimes before. It has recently gained its notoriety for sectarian killings of bus passengers’ enroute to GilgitBaltistan and an unfortunate recent event of killing of international mountaineering expedition team members at Nanga Parbat base camp.

Tourism which used to be the main source of employment has dwindled to zero. Chilas is always a destination to break the journey for a refreshing cup of tea. To my surprise I close to thirty (30) cars parked at Shangri-La Hotel Chilas. Shangri-La Hotel is a road side hotel facility which used to be a humming place for international tourists. On my inquiry I came to know that all the cars do not belong to any tourist company rather they are the timber merchants. The merchants of Chilas on the lines of merchant of Venice were there for their pound of flesh. To make bucks out of recent opportunity provided by former PM of Pakistan in March  2013 which were of course last few days of his stay in power, for making the best business out of the illegally cut timber. DSCN3649

On my way I saw hundreds of trucks being loaded with large logs of timber. It was a scene of a gold rush where everyone is making hey while the forests are green. I am not a forest expert but even i could see that fresh timber was being mixed with the old cut timber. Hundreds of trucks were filled with timber and small town of Shatial appeared like Wagha border lined up with loads and loads of trucks loaded with timber. My kids who love movies like Avatar and Epic that preach loving nature and trees were horrified and shocked at the gravity of the crimes. For them cutting down a tree was killing a living creature. I mustered the courage and took as many snaps as I could on the way.

According to some of the press reports in Pakistan, a notification has allowed 1.6 million cubic feet of illegally cut timber to be released outside the administrative unit after the imposition of a volume-based fine. The fines vary from Rs570 per cubic foot for fir trees to Rs700 per cubic foot for deodar trees. According to the policy, the 2.078 million cubic feet of legally extracted timber can also be released. These million cubic feet translated to actual timber gets more in quantum if one measures it with the truck and deforestation it may create. The potential ecological and environmental hazards it will bring will make the community permanently exposed to vulnerable flash floods and other hazards. DSCN3651

The Government of Pakistan must have taken this decision after professional and expert advice. There is an economic dimension of harvesting the forest. There must also be a forest work plan by the GB Forest department and of course we can see at least a dozen of forest check points on the KKH throughout the journey. The key question is if it is any benefit to the people of the GB and KPK who have been permanently deprived from their natural forests. We will not go into the debate of importance of forests for people of Pakistan. We all know that resource based conflicts are one of the worst conflicts of its nature. GiglitBaltistan is already under lot of sectarian divisive lines. Can it afford resource based conflicts of forests as well?

Interestingly the definition of a value of a tree is different for an urban Pakistani and a rural one. The rural one sees it either from the heat value i.e. how much warmth it can provide in the chilling winter of Kohistan or Diamer or in stumpage value i.e. in terms of money how much a square foot would garner in sale to a timber merchant minus all the costs. The merchant is least interested in the wood value chain as well as the end price it fetches once paneled in an elite drawing room of Islamabad. The urban logic is pretty simple; a wifi is far more a thing in need than a tree. If trees gave wifi signals, all the road medians of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi would have been filled with huge trees, but they only give oxygen which is already available so it only is a subject of a philosophical or academic debate.

The economic benefit of a healthy tree with respect to its oxygen producing capacity is roughly US Dollar Thirty Six Thousand (USD 36,000) per year, claims a report by NGO Delhi Greens. Their claim is based on the fact that an average adult at rest inhales 7-8 liters of air per minute which means about 11,000 liters of air per day. Of this, about 20% is oxygen and nearly 15% is exhaled. Therefore, a human consumes about 550 liters of pure oxygen per day. The market cost of 2.75 liter oxygen cylinder is US Dollar 103.

I am not a forest subject specialist but being a business graduate I feel that economics should beat economics.  The stumpage value should be second to oxygen value. It may be idealistic but so far no one has come up to rescue the forests despite all the tall claims of saving the community and bio diversity. All the concepts of disaster risk reduction and conservation of animals whose habitat is forest have touched deaf ears. Let’s make a Pakistani animated movie after roaring success of burka clad women who fights for education on the theme of environment and ecology. I am sure the cartoonists and animators can easily draconize timber mafia merchants as antiheroes and villains. I bet the movie could be a big success.

The writer is a Program Management Practitioner, Mentor, Coach and Consultant. He works for a private organization as Director Strategy. He can be reached at; Linkedin:, Twitter:@moinhunzai




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