Forest dept downplays recent fires in KP forests

18 June 2019

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PAKISTAN: PESHAWAR: Around 1.229 million trees were damaged causing a loss of nearly Rs26.839 million after fire broke out in all the forest subdivisions soon after Eidul Fitr raising serious questions about the Billion Tree Tsunami project.

The large scale fire in all the forest regions has sparked debate on the social media and in common circles. According to the statistics collected by the forest department, the fire affected forests on a total area of 1422.72 hectares in six districts of the province. The worst affected areas include Karamar Hills in Mardan and Swabi, Haripur, Siran, Kaghan, Daur watershed, Buner, Mian Khan-Sangao village in Mardan district and areas in Kohat and Karak districts.

The fire provided a good opportunity to the critics to settle scores with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has a history of blaming its rivals, especially the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for burning official record to hide corruption whenever there had been a fire incident anywhere in the country.

Now there are allegations that the fires were deliberately caused to hide the alleged corruption in the Billion Tree Tsunami, a much-publicized project of the PTI government in the province for which Prime Minister Imran Khan has also been taking credit wherever he goes. In his recent visit to China, the prime minister even claimed to have planted five billion trees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a statement which was much ridiculed by the opposition members.

The provincial forest department, however, has its own view on the issue. They are counting various reasons for the fire. Also, they say that the fire affected only 0.012 percent area and plants of the Billion Tree Tsunami project.

According to a senior official of the KP forest department, a total of 1.2 billion trees were grown in the province under the project through plantation and natural regeneration, while the approximate number of the damaged trees due to the recent wave of fire stood at just 1.229.

There have been multiple reasons for the fire, but the fires at so many locations simultaneously have become a matter of serious concern. It forced the provincial government to formulate standing operating procedures for such incidents. Chief Minister Mahmood Khan issued special directives to form response units in case of such happenings.

The forest department has already initiated inquiry into the incidents to fix responsibility and take action accordingly. The inquiry committee would soon submit the report, sources said.

The officials of the forest department strongly rejected the allegations of deliberate efforts to destroy forests in the province to hide alleged corruption in the tree afforestation project. An official of the department told The News that the total affected area and forest due to the fires were less than one percent of the Billion Tree Tsunami afforestation project. He said that FIRs in almost all the cases have been lodged and arrests made. He wondered how someone would burn the plants planted with one’s hands. “These plants are like our children. And no one can be so cruel to burn his own children,” the official maintained.

Another official remarked that the department has adopted the policy of zero tolerance against timber mafia. Therefore, it was quite possible that the timber mafia is behind such activities to malign the department, he argued.

The influx of tourists to the forest region during Eidul Fitr holidays is also counted as a likely reason for the fire as visitors use firewood for cooking. Also, most of the locations where fire broke out were privately or community owned. As the property owners use fire to burn the grass, it most of the times get out of their control.

Officials said one reason of the fires was the closures where tree and grass cutting is completely banned. Guards have been hired to protect the closures at a salary of Rs15,000 per month, but they have not been given salaries for the last several months. The forest department had moved a proposal to the provincial government to release an amount of Rs2 billion to pay the salaries of the guards and clear other bills relating to the afforestation project, but the proposal was rejected.Personal jealousies and sabotage activities are also a big reason causing the forest fires, an official said.

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