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Jhangar:Remains of the Forests

The Indus plains were once covered with thick forests. Faiza Hasan and Rina Saeed Khan report on community based efforts in Jhangar Valley to conserve the remaining pockets of forests in the Salt Range

The Indus plains were once covered with thick forests and wildlife like elephants, rhinoceros, wild sheep and leopards. It was no wonder, then, that this area was the favourite hunting grounds of the Mughal emperors – now all that is left of their rule are crumbling monuments and hunting lodges that are strewn all over the plains. The years have also changed the face of this land as the population increased and forests gave way to farmlands. Then, in the 19th century, an extensive irrigation canal system was introduced by the British colonialists to help the local farmers. The canals benefited the farmers but they sounded the death knell to the scrub forests.

These forests are now reduced to small pockets of areas in the Salt Range like the Jhangar Valley. Jhangar lies to the south east of Islamabad in the Chakwal district of Punjab. The people of this region depend on small sized farms (around 2 acres) to grow local rain-fed varieties of wheat, maize and barley (which don’t need pesticides) for household and community use. Most of their real income comes from service in the Pakistan Armed Forces – almost every household in the area has at least one member serving in the army. The Jhangar forest is spread over 3,053 hectares and includes forty different species of trees, shrubs and herbs, thirty-one species of birds, sixteen mammals and a large number of reptiles and insects. The indigenous Punjab Urial, the common leopard and the peafowl, which are all endangered species, are also found in this region.

Besides increased agricultural activity, the other factor that has changed Jhangar was the discovery of minerals and ores in the region. This led to extensive blasting and coal mining, with no regard to the destruction of indigenous vegetation. These coal-mines, numbering more than a hundred, are privately owned, but the land is leased from the government’s Forest Department or from the local community. They are a source of considerable revenue for both the government and the local community, so it is difficult to control their activities. Also, a nearby cement factory called Gharibwal Cement collects raw material (gypsum, clay, limestone) from Jhangar Valley. The recently privatised cement factory buys land from the area and destroys the forests by blasting for raw materials. The dust particles released by the factory also settle on the leaves of the plants in the area, blocking their transpiration process. Although the factory employs local villagers and is hence a source of income in the valley, it has disturbed the habitat of the wildlife and eroded the fertile land.

A rapidly increasing population dependent on fuel wood has been a further cause of extensive logging, while unchecked grazing by domestic livestock belonging to the roaming nomads and the villagers themselves has resulted in the overuse of the forests. In addition, poaching was also reducing the region’s wildlife. The different nomads or Bakarwal, who would arrive in the valley from across the province or from Azad Kashmir on a seasonal basis, would settle in the valley for 5-6 months at a stretch. They would pay the locals for access to their forests. The nomads would then set up their camps and damage the trees in their quest for fuel. They would also graze their goats, sheep and cows in the area, destroying the vegetation.

The Jhangar scrub forest would have completely disappeared if the WWF-Pakistan hadn’t stepped in. WWF is one of the world’s largest independent environmental conservation organisations. In 1992-93, WWF surveyed the vanishing ecological resources of Pakistan, one of which was the Jhangar scrub forest. This particular scrub forest gained special significance when the organisation discovered its wide variety of trees and animals. The area was also discovered to be ecologically important because of the Punjab Urial, an internationally recognised endangered mountain sheep endemic to the Salt Range. With the disappearing scrub forests and uncontrolled hunting, the Urial faced every danger of being wiped off the face of the earth. There are today an estimated 25-30 Punjab Urial living in Jhangar Valley.

During their research, WWF also discovered that Jhangar occupies a unique position. The government owns most of the protected forests in Pakistan, but 60% of the Jhangar forest is Shamilat or owned by the community. This meant that instead of government sponsored action to save the valley from destruction, the Jhangar community itself would have to act to protect their forests. Community members were first gathered to visualise the disaster of indiscriminate woodcutting on their way of life. WWF contacted influential local teachers and village elders and explained how mining, over grazing and cutting was exhausting their soil. The fear that the land may not be able to support their future generations geared the villagers into action.

To help mobilise the communities for joint action, village organisations were formed that went on to make a community based organisation called the Jhangar Valley Conservation and Development Committee (JVCDC). A field office to house the JVCDC was set up in January 1998 in the village of Basharat, the largest village in the area. There are a total of 16 villages in Jhangar – out of these, 13 have formed village organisations. 20 representatives from these villages serve as voluntary members of the JVCDC (including one female member). These are mostly activists of the area – school-teachers, social workers and community leaders. The Vice-President of the JVCDC is Fazal Rehman, the head-master of the local government boy’s high-school. He has been very active from the beginning in motivating his community and the youth of the area. He also plays the role of mediator in any disputes that erupt in Jhangar.

The JVCDC’s strength lies in the fact that it takes local decisions and is able to implement them. For instance, in 1999 the local community decided to impose a ban on these nomads. The JVCDC ensured that the nomads would be stopped at the entrance to the valley – they are no longer allowed into Jhangar. JVCDC is also motivating the District Administration to put pressure on Gharibwal Cement to restrict its area of activities. It has also motivated the people to stop the government from selling reserve forest area to the factory.

WWF-Pakistan also has its own staff working in the area – Aamir Saeed Khan is the Conservation Officer who has been working in the region since 1996. He explains “WWF plays the role of the facilitator, providing the expertise while the locals provide the manpower”. The WWF, whose office is located in Choa Saidan Shah, the district headquarters, organises nature clubs and supports other environmental educational activities like celebrating “Earth Day”. It also provides training and capacity building activities to the local community, helping to raise awareness in the area. When the JVCDC needed financial assistance, the WWF contacted the UNDP’s GEF/SGP and with its funding, work was started to save the valley and rehabilitate the forest. Soon the government’s Forest Department developed an interest in the area and helped by providing seeds and saplings for the replanting of fast-growing trees like Acacia, Ailanthus, Ipleiple and Sheesham. Since the Forest Department owned 40% of the Jhangar forest, they had a real stake in protecting the forest’s future.

But the tree plantation was not enough to save the valley. As an alternative means of livelihood, the villagers started growing high yield varieties of wheat and fodder for their animals. This eased the pressure from the forest, pockets of which were left untouched to grow and rejuvenate. Work is currently underway to spread the use of fuel-efficient stoves in the area, which will cut down the pressure on the forest. These stoves failed to make an impact initially, but were reintroduced after considerable redesigning of the stove. The fuel-efficient stoves are now helping to reduce the pressure on the forest, and WWF provides training for the implementation and use of the new technology to the local women. The farmers are also thinking of ways of using their forest without damaging it, like extracting and selling wild honey.

As the Jhangar project grew, it attracted an unconventional partner, the Power Company AES. Since industrial production releases damaging carbon emission into the atmosphere, AES’s mandate requires investment in “carbon sink” forestation activities like the Jhangar project. The AES provided funding to plant around 10,000 trees in Jhangar from 1998-99. Another partner in the project is a Japanese environmental NGO, the KNCF (Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund), which funded another phase of the Jhangar project. Around 11, 144 plants have been added through this grant which was for 1999-2000.

Jhangar is a good example for the government and the nation of how effective local action can save the land. The community has planted more than 20,000 trees since 1994 and developed locally owned nurseries. 609 fruit trees have also been planted for income generation purposes. In the past two years, the community has successfully controlled the cutting of trees in the forest. The JVCDC monitors all these activities and fines local villagers from disobeying the ban on cutting in the protected areas. The organisation also helps identify interested groups who are willing to participate in protecting their land. The JVCDC initiates dialogue with these groups and after several meetings and consultations, during which they are told about the benefits of protecting their land, an agreement is formulated. The locals then sign this formal agreement and declare a portion of their land as a protected area. Explains Dr Ejaz Ahmed, the Deputy Director General of WWF-Pakistan who is in charge of the Jhangar Valley project, “although this is not a legal and binding document, the locals follow it because they have given their word. Jhangar is still a traditional area and people tend to keep their promises”.

Today, 875.25 hectares (around 48 percent) of Jhangar’s Shamilat land is a protected area where the trees and animals are safe from harm. The people of Jhangar Valley have now set a precedent in the country by declaring their own protected areas. Though it will take several years for the ecological and economical benefits of the tree plantation to become visible, for now the community is willing to patiently keep on working. Under the mentoring role of the WWF and help from UNDP, the Jhangar community is planing to grow into a full-fledged community based organisation with a vision to save their ancestral lands for their future generations.

 

 

Credits:

  • This article is an excerpt from the book ‘Green Pioneers’, edited by Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib and published for the UNDP in 2002, price Rs 675. Available from City Press, Karachi (http://www.citypress.cc/)

  • The Friday Times (www.thefridaytimes.com)

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