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  ENN 23 Dec 05
Fears for Dwindling Forests in Pakistani Quake Zone
By Abu Arqam Naqash, Reuters

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan The Oct. 8 earthquake that flattened much of northern Pakistan has taught a lesson to mountain villagers that conservationists had long failed to instill: the importance of their forests.

Despite the harsh lesson, conservationists and government officials are worried that necessity will drive survivors to hack down trees to save themselves from the winter.

"Honestly speaking, I'm both surprised and pleased to see that communities have realized the importance of vegetation after they've seen for themselves what we had long failed to convince them of," said Yousaf Qureshi, head of the wildlife department in Pakistani Kashmir.

The 7.6 magnitude earthquake killed more than 73,000 people, most of them in the Pakistani Himalayas. Many people were killed when landslides triggered by the quake swept down mountain slopes, taking villages, farms and roads with them.

In some areas, whole mountain sides collapsed. The landslides were particularly severe on slopes that had been stripped of their cover of pines and Himalayan hardwood trees, while many forested slopes remained intact.

"People now realize the damage done by deforestation and pledge to work with us to make up the losses," Qureshi said.

Forests cover about 11 percent of Pakistani Kashmir compared with nearly 30 percent in 1947, when Pakistan and India gained independence from Britain and, soon afterward, fought their first war over the region.

Pakistani Kashmir, known for its top-quality cedar wood, had been generating income from timber for decades until a government decision to ban felling in 1997. But the extraction of "dead, decayed or diseased" trees was allowed to continue, which critics say gave powerful, so-called timber mafias the loophole they needed to continue stripping the slopes.

With fines for illegal felling at less than a paltry $10 a tree, villagers have also carried on cutting trees for wood for building and fuel.

Experts also point to the dangerous practice of clearing steep slopes and carving terraces into them for cultivation. "We don't have any proper land use planning, which also contributed to the huge losses," said forestry official Younis Malik, who said some countries ban cultivation on slopes of more than 30 degrees.

"The trees are nails which have griped the mountains and kept them stable," Malik said. "Our ecology was already affected and the mountains had become fragile on account of mining, blasting and felling, and could not survive the jolts of the quake," he said.

"A HELL OF A LOT OF TIMBER"

As survivors begin pulling their lives together and rebuild ruined homes, fears for remaining forests are growing, even if more people now understand the importance of trees in binding the loose, rocky soil.

"Now the people will definitely start cutting trees out of necessity," said forestry official Chaudhry Mohammad Bashir. "There may have been a change in the approach of the people, but tell me, what they can do when they don't have any proper shelter and heating?"

Bashir says the government should import timber for both construction and firewood to protect remaining forests. "We need a hell of a lot of timber for reconstruction and I'm worried where that much volume will come from," he said.

According to official figures, 246,280 houses of different kinds were destroyed or damaged in Pakistani Kashmir and have to be rebuilt. "If we supply only 100 cubic feet of timber for one house, which is a very small volume, even then we'll need 24.6 million cubic feet," Bashir said. "And I believe up in the mountains, people will cut a minimum of two trees for every household."

Qureshi, whose department has been developing four national parks in Pakistani Kashmir, says while the quake taught an invaluable lesson about the importance of trees, people still needed to be encouraged to save their forests.

He and his staff have set up village conservation committees which will try to drive home the message. The teams are also distributing corrugated iron sheets for survivors to build shelters, but on one condition: people rebuilding have to retrieve wood from their collapsed homes and not fell trees, he said.

Qureshi said there should also be a total ban on commercial felling. "We have literally denuded our mountains and today we are reaping what we have sown. I would stress that commercial harvesting should be completely banned."

Qureshi shudders at well-intentioned suggestions from some experts who say survivors should rebuild their homes out of wood, not the stone and concrete that killed so many people when homes collapsed in the quake.

"For God's sake, let's not make suggestions like this."

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