‘All members of society are the owner of forests as they reap benefits from them’. —AFP/File
‘All members of society are the owner of forests as they reap benefits from them’. —AFP/File

KARACHI: While accusing the government of taking over forest land for sugarcane projects and patronising the illegal occupation of forest land, members of civil society organisations have opposed the recent decision of the Sindh government to allot 9,000 acres of forest land to the army. They argue that it will further shrink the already depleted forest cover and negate the government’s international commitments on nature conservation.

They strongly criticised the lease policy of the government and said it led to large-scale deforestation.

“Ninety per cent of the province’s forest cover has gone and what is left doesn’t meet the international standard of a forest,” said Zain Daudpoto of the Indus Development Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working to uplift poor communities.

According to him, Sindh has about 750,000 acres of riverine and in-land forests (excluding mangrove forests) on paper, of which 90pc of forest land has been illegally occupied by influential landlords and there is no writ of the forest department.

‘All members of society are the owner of forests as they reap benefits from them’

The 2005 lease policy of the government, he says, had proved to be most detrimental. Between 2004 and 2005, when the policy was proposed and approved, influential people uprooted forests and then acquired it on lease.

“Instead of increasing the forest cover and alleviating poverty under the policy, the government has used the forest land to bribe people. It’s only the rich who benefitted from the policy,” he said.

The government, he said, had also amended the lease policy and reduced the plantation limit from 25pc to 20pc and allowed NGOs and the corporate sector to acquire lease of forest land under its amended agro forestry policy.

The government, he said, intended to establish sugarcane zones in Badin, Thatta and Dadu for which it had already acquired 25,000 acres of forest land in the latter two districts.

“We are totally against the lease of forest land after having seen so much misuse of this policy. The government can give some other land to the army instead of giving forest land,” he suggested. This allotment, he added, seemed to be a tactic to bring a bad name to the army, and later be used to justify their support for establishing sugarcane zones.

In 2010, Mr Daudpoto with the help of his colleagues, won a case against the Sindh government that had allowed the conversion of forest land.

“All members of society are the owner of forests as they reap benefits from them. Hence, their ownership can’t be changed or status converted,” he said.

He also expressed the intention of seeking court’s intervention against the move by the government of giving away and taking over forest land.

Seconding his opinion, Nasir Panhwar of Friends of Indus said: “We have come to a point that though there is forest land in the province, there are no forests. The move to allot forest land to the army will also send a wrong message to the international community with whom the government has agreements,” he said.

Highlighting the impacts of deforestation, he said that depletion of forests would further aggravate harsh weather conditions and effects of climate change.

“Our priority should be to conserve and increase the forest cover as we have committed under the convention on biodiversity and Millennium Development Goals,” he observed.

He expressed regret over news reports according to which the government has given large tracts of forest land to influential people after displacing local communities in a bid to support sugar mills.

Land of the outlaws

There are, however, experts who believe that giving the forest land in Shikarpur district to the army for onward distribution to the heirs of martyred soldiers and wounded military personnel is not a bad idea, provided the government ensures implementation of the terms and conditions of the lease policy.

“This area has historically been under the control of outlaws and the government has lost its writ a long time ago. So, giving it to a committed organisation like the army is a good step, if it ensures implementation of the lease term on tree plantation along with agriculture practices,” said former forest and wildlife secretary Shamsul Haq Memon.

Syed Ghulam Qadir Shah of International Union for Conservation of Nature said there was no harm in giving away the forest land to the army if the status of the land was not changed and 25pc tree plantation was done on the land.

“If they grow forests there and protect the land, there shouldn’t be any problem. There is no room for land conversion,” he said.

According to sources, the 9,000 acres is part of the 25,000 acres of forest land that is said to be the largest forest with irrigated plantation. Rangers have recently cleared the area (of outlaws) that, according to an estimate, had claimed the lives of about 300 people including an MNA.

The army’s request for land was for 35,521 acres. The application had been pending for 14 years.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2015

The decision to allot land to army was taken during a meeting presided over by Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali. — APP/File
The decision to allot land to army was taken during a meeting presided over by Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali. — APP/File

KARACHI: In an apparent move to defuse tension between the PPP and the security establishment, the Sindh government on Friday decided ‘in principle’ to allot 9,000 acres of its forest lands to Pakistan Army against its 14-year-old ‘application’ for 35,521 acres which it wants to distribute among the heirs of martyred soldiers and wounded military personnel

The decision to allot 9,000 acres of lands in Garhi Yasin of Shikarpur district to Pakistan Army was taken during a meeting presided over by Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah at the CM House. The meeting was called to discuss this matter exclusively.

The Sindh government’s move came days after PPP leader Senator Farhatullah Babar hinted in a speech in Senate that the rejection of demand for thousands of acres of lands had led to the present situation which had brought the Rangers and the provincial government at loggerheads.

“Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah has decided to allot 9,000 acres of forest lands to Pakistan Army for onward distribution among the heirs of martyred and war wounded military personnel,” said a statement issued by the CM House.

“Since the request has been made for the rehabilitation of martyrs’ families and war-wounded military personnel, therefore, this request must be honoured. Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif had personally asked for the allotment of the land.”

The meeting was attended by Sindh Minister for Forest Gianchand Israni, Chief Secretary Siddiq Memon, Principal Secretary to CM Almuddin Bullo, senior member of Sindh Board of Revenue Shoaib Siddiqui, Finance Secretary Sohail Rajput, Forest Secretary Sajaad Abbasi and other officers concerned.

In 2001 the Pakistan Army had formally forwarded an application seeking 35,521 acres of forest lands in Garhi Yasin of Shikarpur district.

After becoming army chief, General Raheel personally pursued the application.

Forest Minister Israni told the meeting that the land in question was located in the area of Golo Daro of Garhi Yasin and added at present only 9,000 acres of lands was available. His ministry had no objection if it was allotted to Pakistan Army, he added.

Chief Secretary Siddiq Memon said that the army sought land for the families of its 500 martyrs, 200 of whom belonged to Sindh.

However, the meeting made it clear that the forest land could only be used for agricultural purposes under the rules.

“Senior member of Sindh Board of Revenue Shoaib Siddiqui told the meeting that under the policy forest land can be allotted only for agricultural purposes,” said the statement.

“The Pakistan Army has already made request to use it for agricultural purposes, therefore, the government was authorised to allot the land.”

Forest Secretary Sajjad Abbasi said that under the policy the lease holder of the land was bound to cultivate forests on 20 per cent of the total holding and 80 per cent could be used for agricultural purposes.

Mr Israni said that under the defined rules, the forest land could only be allotted to an individual or institution for a certain period, which could be extended by the chief minister.

“However, the purpose of its utility cannot be changed and it remains solely for agricultural purpose,” he added.

“The chief secretary would call next meeting to sort out all relevant issues. If one wants to change the purpose of those lands than we need to change the forest rules and for that purpose there is a certain procedure and legislation which requires the provincial assembly’s nod.”