Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The shade that scorches

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An ignorant military dictator and his equally misguided ministers first forced the Forest Department to increase forest cover in the advent of the 1960s. Since the survival rates of local saplings were as low as 15 per cent, the eucalyptus – imported from Australia and not fed upon by any subcontinental animal – was favoured; thus starting the practice of destroying forest cover with wholesale plantations of water-guzzling eucalyptuses. 

Trees being felled from Gulberg Main Boulevard to make way for the signal-free corridor project

Towns expanded, chewing up what was once forest and farmland. Large tracts of well-forested land were cleared of trees hundreds of years old, and were replaced by new roads and newly laid out parks. Hills that were once clad with pine trees, but had since been denuded due to erosion control post-Partition, were generously carpeted with eucalyptuses. When the old intercity road, once passing under tunnels of acacia, neem, pipal and shisham, was widened, the old trees were cut and replaced with eucalyptus trees. By the late 1970s, eucalyptus was seen from Sost, on the Chinese border, to Jiwani on the Balochistan seaboard, and from Nagarparkar in Sindh to the hills of Bajaur and Swat. Yet, no one connected the drying up of springs to the introduction of the ever-thirsty tree.

Research in the 1990s by the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology, Faisalabad, laid bare the hydrologic properties of the eucalyptus. We are now aware of how it siphons water from our dwindling aquifer, yet nothing has changed for the forest departments: they continue to promote this invidious species. To top it all off, unsurprisingly, every new canal dug in Pakistan is faithfully lined with eucalyptus.

We were still raucously singing the eucalyptus for its hardiness and fast growth when the next poison was imposed upon us in Islamabad. The paper mulberry, imported from China, was planted in mass, and has blighted the capital with its notorious high yield of allergens —asthma aggravation and hay fever run rampant today.

In the early 1990s, a general duty bureaucrat masquerading as a horticulturist induced the Plague of the Palm Tree to Lahore. Though indigenous to the land, it was an ill-advised plantation, which began on Main Boulevard, Gulberg, where spreading mango trees were chopped down and replaced with date palms.

Thereafter, there was no looking back. Palm trees of every description have since replaced ancient trees. Along brand new roadways and highways, we see newly planted palms: dwarfed, middling and large. Roads in upcoming housing communities are lined with palm trees, and their parks filled either with palms or imported shrubbery. This has occurred not just in cities under the control of an absent-minded bureaucracy, but across the country where ordinary people believe the government can do no wrong.

But, our administrators were not done yet. Conocarpus was discovered, a species of mangrove imported from Central and South America. This new magic tree virtually grows by the metre every day, and is company for the palm. Conocarpus, having existed in Pakistan for less than 10 years, is known to be a major producer of allergens; it will not be long before a nationwide attack of allergies and asthma makes itself known.

Trees are carbon sinks; the more biomass they have, the greater the amount of carbon they sequester. The more carbon sequestered, the less of it remains in the atmosphere to contribute to warming. What we are doing in Pakistan is destroying our indigenous trees of huge biomass, and replacing them with aesthetically pleasing but, ultimately, useless palm trees and shrubs — our carbon emissions roam freely in the atmosphere.

As we cut down more native trees, our birdlife suffers. Lahore was home to a 170 different species of birds in 1970. Today only 60 remain. The foolish obsession of our masters with imported species of trees and shrubbery is making a green desert of the country.

Perhaps no other nation suffers from the same lack of hindsight as Pakistanis do, for even when we have learned the perils of imported trees, we remain negligent of ecology

Moreover, Pakistan is a country of eight months of searing sunshine. We need shade, and we should not have anyone else tell us that. Yet we are replacing all our indigenous trees, which provide shade, with shade-less imported palms and shrubs.

The bane of the issue is the general duty ignorant bureaucrat masquerading as a horticulturist, whilst having no understanding of the word 'ecology', and considering it beneath him to be advised by experts. The babu panders to an equally foolish political master. Unwilling to learn, this unholy cabal is destroying the future of Pakistan.

Perhaps no other nation suffers from the same lack of hindsight as Pakistanis do, for even when we have learned the perils of imported trees, we remain negligent of ecology. In another few years, shade will no longer exist to shelter us from the growing heat. Our souls will wither away from the absence of birdsong; we will live in hell.

The tall eucalyptus, swaying in the breeze delighted the ignorant powerful. They knew only of trees; they had no understanding of the ecology.

This piece appears in the September 2015 issue of Herald

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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