Timber is a precious commodity in Pakistan. Higher timber prices in Pakistan, as compared to the world average, have made the timber business lucrative. As a result, illegal timber harvesting has become widespread throughout the country, particularly in the highlands of KP.
The notion of a timber mafia became popular and infamous in the early 1990s. It refers to a network of people involved in stripping timber from the few remaining natural forests in Pakistan. The obsolete policies upheld by the forest departments provide many loopholes which are being exploited by the timber mafia.
Illicit loggers act with impunity in Pakistan as many of them are believed to have representation within the government and tend to bribe politicians. Owing to the corrupt elements within the government, the timber mafia continues to be an active player in logging and other commercial activities which have turned into a grave threat to the country’s forests.
The forest sector in Pakistan contributes around $1.3 billion to the economy annually and employs approximately 53,000 people. However, Pakistan continues to have the highest rate of forest depletion in South Asia, making it one of the most serious environmental issues for the country. According to Global Forest Watch, Pakistan has 213 million metric tonnes of carbon stocks in living forest biomass while its 6.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions came from changes in land use and forestry.
For years, the timber mafia has plundered Pakistan’s forests. Their activities have contributed to the reduction of the country’s tree cover from 33 percent to five percent in the last 75 years. This figure is considered to be quite low as compared to the estimated tree cover of 30 percent in the world today. According to government officials, the timber mafia has chopped down forests worth Rs200 billion in KP over the last 10 years, mostly due to illegal logging. The rate of deforestation is currently between 2 to 2.4 percent. By 2019-24, it is expected that the country’s forest cover will be reduced to half of the extent it was in 1995, as per the Food and Agriculture Organization.
The blame for the exploitation and degradation of forests is mostly attributed to the subsistence practices of locals who are partially or wholly dependent on forest resources for their food, shelter, fuel and other needs. However, there are various commercial interests that satisfy government revenues through forestry and provide supplies to the timber market. It is, therefore, more of an economic purpose which has resulted in the exploitation of forests beyond the sustainable levels. Poor forest management and the lack of law-enforcement efforts to curtail forest exploitation have prompted the illegal cutting of trees and provided an impetus to the timber mafia.
The term ‘timber mafia’ includes local timber smugglers, former harvesting contractors, local timber traders, sawmill owners and, at times, forestry staff and local politicians as well.
The connection between Pakistan’s timber mafia and the country’s deforestation can be gauged from the belief that the government regularly takes bribes from the timber mafia in exchange for permits to fell trees. The outcome is that forests have been ruthlessly exploited by law-enforcement agencies, politicians and bureaucrats for their own vested interests.
In addition, poverty is another major factor that has contributed to forest shrinkage in Pakistan. For many people who are unable to earn a living in any other way, felling trees to sell timber to traders helps them make their ends meet. This is mainly because the government pays a low price for legal timber to locals as compared to the amount offered by timber smugglers.
A member of the village committee in Chilas reported that in Diamer, smugglers offer locals between Rs500 to Rs800 per cubic feet of timber, which they then sell for up to seven times the amount. The government pays only Rs40 per cubic feet on trees that are harvested and sold legally. As a result, the government should increase the royalty by at least two or three folds to discourage locals from working with the timber mafia. The government also needs to ensure that no arbitrage exists between the open market prices and the prices of timber announced by the government.
Conservation policies allowed the government departments to either lease forests or provide them on a contractual basis. These policies have changed the status of forests from vital components of nature to mere revenue generators. Furthermore, local communities who used to be custodians of forests are being marginalised under such policies and laws. The state has brought itself into direct conflict with the locals by depriving them of their due royalties and shares of forest resources. The lack of political will has given a free hand to the smugglers, the timber mafia and corrupt politicians to expand their illegal timber trade.
With the growing scarcity of timber in the market in Pakistan, timber prices increased rapidly and illegal harvesting created an additional burden on the forests, both at the provincial and national levels. Pakistan is now struggling with the consequences of large swathes of denuded forest. The country is experiencing warmer summers and colder winters, limited rainfall and frequent landslides. There has also been a rise in pest attacks on crops and a decline in the bird population.
Environmentalists believe that any initiative to revive forestation will not be fruitful until the government does not deal with the timber mafia with an iron fist. Empowering local forest communities and building a sense of ownership among them will translate into a policing role and can effectively combat illegal logging. Furthermore, the administrative and protective capabilities of the provincial forest departments must be strengthened by providing them the latest technologies to efficiently and sustainably manage forest resources.
It is necessary to amend the existing laws on deforestation to ensure that they can be applied to present circumstances. A proper institutional setup is also needed to stop lumberjacks from wreaking havoc on natural resources. In addition, afforestation must be carried out on a large scale to tackle this threat.
The writer is pursuing an MPhil in development studies at the Lahore School of Economics.