Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Messing up our Ecology

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A much abbreviated version of this article appears in the August 2014 issue of WWF’s Natura  

The messing up of the forest cover of Pakistan began back in the 1960s when the military dictator of the day ordered the Forest Department to increase the tree cover of the country. Now, that is hard work. In those days it meant planting any one of the dozens of indigenous species, putting the steel mesh cage around the sapling to protect it from grazing animals and tending it to ensure it survived. However, survival was as low as fifteen to twenty percent only.

Then some wiseacre discovered that a eucalyptus (already known to the subcontinent since the 1890s) sapling stuck in the ground had a hundred percent chance of growing into a tall tree. And so, sometime in the 1960s a certain Dr Prior was invited over from Australia. The man, an expert eucalyptologist, suggested six of the six hundred or so species of this alien tree as suitable to be planted in Pakistan.

There began an alien invasion. Prior was not concerned with the fact that the eucalyptus is a water-guzzling tree; our foresters were only concerned with increasing tree cover with the least possible hard work. Moreover, since there is no animal in the subcontinent that feeds on this alien tree, it did not require the protection of the steel mesh cage. That did not mean that the cage became redundant. It continued to remain on the ledgers but not on the ground and money for it was pocketed by corrupt forest officers.

As time passed, the eucalyptus became the favourite species of Pakistani foresters who evidently have no clue of ecology. Aside: it is interesting to note that until ten years ago, the Pakistan Forest Institute at Peshawar dealt only cursorily with ecology even in its post-graduate programmes. If things have meanwhile changed, this writer is not aware. On the face of it, they do not seem to have changed however: even today foresters have no clue about ecology. Ignorant forest department officials therefore continue to lie shamelessly through their teeth concerning the hydrological properties of the eucalyptus and continue to aggressively promote it. This is remarkable especially in view of the fact that the Punjab government has twice banned eucalyptus plantation. The last time being in 2006.

Flying in the face of the aggressive promotion of eucalyptus by Pakistani foresters is research done by Nuclear Institute of Agricultural Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad. It is shown that a mature eucalyptus sucks up one hundred litres of ground water in every twenty-four hour cycle. That is, the country from Khunjerab Pass to the arid deserts of Jivani and from Nagarparker to the windswept Hindu Kush heights has hundreds of millions of tube wells depleting precious ground water. This word has somehow got around and layfolks now ask about the tree’s hydrological properties. Since the only place ordinary people can turn to is the forest department, they are fed only white lies and eucalyptus is foisted upon them.

In the 1980s whole hillsides in Bajaur, Swat and other parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, once covered with pines, were planted over with eucalyptus. Since corruption in the forest department could not prevent large scale extermination of the pine, incompetence made way for the eucalyptus. I have seen springs and wells in Swat and the Mahaban of Buner dry up in consequence of a glut of the water-guzzling tree.

But ignorance in ecology and incompetence of the various forest departments does not end with promotion of eucalyptus. Last July in Sangla Hill town, I saw the area around the hill being turned into a park. It was being heavily planted with conocarpus, once again an alien native to Central and South America, and some useless ficus trees. Inquiry revealed that the District Coordination Officer, Nankana had ordered this selection in ‘consultation with the Divisional Forest Officer’!

Clearly the DCO was ignorant and the DFO incompetent as well as ignorant.

Even as our romance with the alien and destructive eucalyptus has not ended, the forest departments across the country have discovered conocarpus, once again to our detriment. Though it is not yet conclusive, but it is suspected that like the imported paper mulberry of Islamabad, the conocarpus will be the next spreader of allergic disorders. The avenues of Karachi, once shaded by majestic hundred year-old pipal and other trees, were ruthlessly denuded. The lost cover is being replaced by the imported and useless conocarpus instead.

Indeed, ignorance and incompetence are the hallmarks of this sorry land. Some brigadier serving in Bahawalpur got carried away with the notion of greening Cholistan. And so he planted, it is reported, five million conocarpus amid the dunes and I have had the misfortune of seeing this folly. This brain-dead military man had probably never heard of the more than a dozen species of trees that naturally grow in our deserts.

The incompetent and the ignorant are, ipso facto, in positions of power in Pakistan and my argument against them goes unqualified without considering the following. Trees are carbon sinks. In the process of photosynthesis, they release oxygen and sequester carbon. It is logical that the greater the bio-mass of a tree, the more carbon it can sequester. Lower carbon in the atmosphere means weaker greenhouse effect and a lower threat of global warming.

Among other things, consider the whole scale slaughter of old mango trees from Main Boulevard, Gulberg in the neighbourhood of College of Home Economics. This occurred in the early 1990s on the orders of Kamran Lashari, then either the Deputy Commissioner or Director General, Parks and Horticulture Authority. This reputedly very smart civil officer had a couple of dozen date palms replace these massive carbon sinks. The existing palm trees provide neither shade nor can they hold a fraction of the carbon those ancient mango trees kept. As if to give the whole thing some aspect, some years ago it was alleged that the palms were acquired for Rs 200,000 each!

Initiated by a powerful office, the sickness of cutting old spreading trees to be replaced with date palms became not simply acceptable but de rigueur. The multitude of ignorant masses watching idiotic acts of the organs of the state comes to believe them to be correct. This was evinced ten years ago in a Salt Range village where I asked a schoolteacher to replace the newly planted eucalyptus in the schoolyard with the indigenous phulai (Acacia modesta). An elderly gentleman listening to my argument against the alien tree made a sweeping gesture in the direction of the thousands of eucalyptus lining the Motorway passing right by the village. ‘Is the government stupid to have planted all these? You think you know more than the government?’ Asked the man.

The bottom line is that an ordinary person will believe the government functionary to know what he is talking about. Consequently when a forest officer tells a worried farmer that he can plant as many eucalyptus trees along his new irrigation channel, the farmer is fooled.

The incompetent forester and horticulturist learns his profession from the almighty mali – gardener. Our national work ethic by and large is shirking, especially when in salaried service. I have heard gardeners both in private and government employment utter a wholly obnoxious phrase: Trees create too much trash. The ‘trash’ that the slacker hates so much is leaf litter which it is his duty to clear. But get eucalyptus or alstonia and now the much-loved conocarpus or any one of the ficus or asoka trees and you have considerably less work to do. The sahib learns from the illiterate mali and does the needful.

I know of foolish persons ordering the extermination of magnificent carbon-sequestering large bio-mass trees to be replaced with shrubbery. The case of the Anjuman Himayat e Islam premises in downtown Lahore is a fine example. The once beautifully tree-shaded lawns now bake in the summer sun. The culprit is an aged lawyer who proudly tells how he executed his evil task. And that also puts paid to the foolish notion that age brings acuity and gumption!

We cannot however disregard the fiscal aspect of favouring alien trees. In Ravi Road, Lahore, the forest department maintains a nursery of indigenous trees. Here any sapling can be acquired for a couple of rupees. But to get the useless ficus or dwarf palm to ‘beautify’ the roads in the new localities of the city, people pay upward of a couple of hundred rupees to private nurseries. The two-kilometre stretch of the nameless road from the WAPDA Town roundabout to its junction with College Road is planted with over two hundred ficus trees. This occurred when Abdul Jabbar Shaheen was DG PHA. Allegedly, he acquired this useless tree from a relative’s nursery in Pattoki at an exorbitant price.

As well as the financial gains, there is also a deep-seated inferiority complex most Pakistanis suffer from. For one, most of us claim to come from Arabia – which explains the current infatuation with the shade-less date palm. It is this sense of inferiority and longing for the foreign that encourages ordinary people (for some curious reason, only Punjabis) to change the name of the country to Al-Bakistan. It is this same feeling of inadequacy and inferiority again that people prefer ‘imported’ trees for their homes.

My experience with the Forest Department nursery of Ravi Road many years ago was eye-opening. A DFO named Qureshi, if memory serves, was heading it and was evidently a man of perspicacity and competence. He was surprised I wanted a hundred saplings of different indigenous trees. Although I was willing to pay the price, the man refused saying this was the first time anyone had come asking for local varieties and it was a gift to me from the department. He also arranged for the lot to be delivered to me.

Now let us take ecology. I know for a fact that the average forester has no clue regarding ecology. If he did, he would not blindly and foolishly promote alien and dwarf species of plants. He has no idea of carbon sequestering and he has no notion of the loss of the bird life because of destruction of indigenous trees. Lahore had over one hundred and fifty species of birds in the early 1970s. Today we are left with just one-third. This has occurred because huge swathes of forest have been cleared for housing that has been planted only with shrubs and the utterly morose and dejected looking ulta asoka.

If we have a plethora of incompetence and ignorance, just plain old-fashioned common sense is in proportional short supply. Pakistan has a hot climate seven months of the year. We need shade. But we indulge in an orgy of planting dwarf species.

However, the general duty bureaucrat who rules over PHA or the ignorant forester who only wants to promote alien species because they supposedly grow fast is blind to the loss of bird life. The argument I have heard from gardeners and senior foresters alike is, ‘Why, hundreds of people die every day and you’re concerned with the loss of a few birds!’

The assertion that alien species grow fast is simply spurious. In my home I have a pipal (Ficus religiosa), a shisham (Sissoo dalbergia) and two amaltas (Cassia fistula), all thirteen years old. They all stand nearly ten metres tall.

We have recently seen in this publication [Natura] an article attempting to exonerate the eucalyptus from culpability of draining our water resources. The writer was fooled by mendacious forest department officials. In my experience, they blatantly indulge in falsehoods and I can narrate an anecdote to this effect.

In 2005, I confronted Iqbal Mahmud Sheikh, retired Chief Conservator Forests, on the issue of promotion of eucalyptus because of his involvement in it. The argument wound down to why this useless, unfriendly tree was promoted in Thal Desert. Without batting an eye the man said because no other trees grew in the desert!

Either he was completely ignorant or he was just plain lying. I know it was the latter because he thought I was the average ignorant journalist and he could get away with misleading balderdash. I rattled out the local and scientific names of the several trees that grow naturally in our desert environment. And that shut the man up. To this day, I preserve the recording of this interview as proof of what these mandarins will do.

I met with a fine example of the obfuscation of foolish mandarins two years ago. The vast open grounds in front of Lahore Airport were being planted over with imported and mostly dwarf rubbish so that no human may have shade to sit under. The officer on site argued that they could not have regular trees because they attracted birds which could bring down planes.

On my suggestion the idiot estimated the distance between this garden and the runway as no less than a kilometre. I then suggested he get in my car and we go around to the old airport and see that the largest arjun, pipal and banyan trees on that side were less than half this distance to the old runway. And I do not remember when we read of the last bird hit!

But no argument will work on mandarins trained to be liars, cheats and honed to incompetence and stupidity. We are stuck with these fools who will kill our environment. They are forever mindless of the need to grow only indigenous species of trees – trees that give us shade and a rich bird life.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Five Days in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 11 August 2014 at 02:29, Blogger AJAZ HAQ said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11 August 2014 at 12:37, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

I am planting a 'memory tree' at home. And I am going to document that. Thanks to you sir.

At 11 August 2014 at 15:04, Blogger AJAZ HAQ said...

On a second thought...... What to lament the loss of birds & trees, we do not even care for the humans around us.

At 11 August 2014 at 16:03, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Well done, Nayyar. You are a very good egg.

At 11 August 2014 at 16:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

We are in a very bad way, Ajaz sahib.

At 11 August 2014 at 20:03, Blogger Salman ali said...

I live in punjab society near wapda town it was full of safaidas few yrs back thankfully they got rid of most of the eucalyptus trees.

At 11 August 2014 at 20:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right. We have an inferiority complex. I wanted to plant a peepal tree in my home, but my brother said that its name is really 'Paindu'.

At 11 August 2014 at 21:17, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, an informative and excellently written article. I am personally fond of ficuses and palms, they are beautiful ornamental plants, but are hardly to be planted outside in place of indigenous shade trees, though I won't mind a splash here and there. As for Lashari's ineptness on getting rid of those mango trees, I'm sure you/we can find some kindness in your hearts to forgive him for all the other good he has done for the horticulture in Lahore.

At 12 August 2014 at 10:15, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Lashari cannot be pardoned. He not only introduced the shadeless date palm, he is also behind all the dwarf ornamental madness.

At 12 August 2014 at 10:17, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Shame on your brother, Anonymous. You go ahead and plant that or a sohanjna which is a miracle tree. Read up about it on google. Key in moringa and you'll get sohanjna.

At 12 August 2014 at 10:18, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

We are almost neighbours, Salman Ali. I would suggest you begin a campaign in your own society and plant , sohanjna, pipal, neem and kikar trees.

At 17 August 2014 at 12:15, Blogger Salman ali said...

I planted guava and cheekoo in my backyard and they have grown up to almost 4 meters in 3 yr.

At 13 September 2014 at 07:59, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you please tell the name of the trees you bought from Ravi Road Nursery? Other than peepal, neem, amaltas and tali. I've bought all of them.

At 13 September 2014 at 18:13, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, the trees you mention were the ones I got. But do try Sohanjna and jungle jalebi which they did not have. I will be able to give you some saplings next March/April. Please do contact me by email/telephone and we can talk about the benefits of Sohanjna.

At 26 August 2015 at 02:38, Anonymous Mohammad waqas said...

Sir Salman rashid, i am running a tree plantation campaign in Karachi and just came across tbis article. And i am shocked after reading this. Sadly we have planted around 50 conucarpus till now. Sir it would be great if you let me contact you personally and get guidance from you on all this. Waiting for your reply.

At 5 April 2017 at 09:34, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharing a link:
Pakistan on Verge of Disastrous Water Shortage


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