KASHMIR LoC: Wildfires have destroyed several kilometers of forest area along the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir where crews failed to extinguish the flames due to a lack of appropriate tools and insufficient numberof personnel.
“Fire is advancing on both sides of border because we do not have suitable services and measures to control it,” admitted an officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he could be tried for disclosure of organizational flaws.
People believe that the fire was sparked by cigarette butts thrown down by a passer-by from the nearby community.
“Flames of fire could be seen from a long distance and temperatures of the area have increased,” said Riaz, a social worker, who has visited the scene along with officials.
“Explosions of mine fields have also coupled the damages to green trees and other wildlife.”
India and Pakistan have also mapped mine fields along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir where a heavy military presence and operations are causing greater ecological loss besides human causalities.
Since the beginning of the tropical summer, sporadic wildfires have erupted on both sides of the disputed state of Kashmir.
A series of similar wildfire incidents, some described as arson, have destroyed a large forest area in the southern region.
Hot and dry weather conditions have been blamed for the sparking of intermittent fires. At least three homes were partially damaged when fires erupted in nearby forests in different localities in the Southern Mirpur division.
Farmers complained of a loss of livestock and fodder stored in the forests.
Police have registered cases against 40 persons for inflicting purposeful smoldering, arson and other crimes against forests in the southern Kotli district, however, there have been no arrests as of yet.
Officials accuse nearby communities for the abuse of forests for their livelihood.
“People living areas adjacent to the forests intentionally carry out grassfires because they believe that it regenerates richer yields, which is used as food for livestock,” forest officer Rehman says.
In Pakistan administrated Kashmir, 88 percent of rural populations largely depend upon the forest for livelihood. And 89 percent of households use wood for cooking and space heating.
Contributing 0.3 percent to the country’s GNP, forests supply 32 percent of Pakistan’s total energy needs in the form of fuel wood.
Jammu Kashmir, a forestry state divided between India and Pakistan, is inhabited by Coniferous Forests, especially Deodar (Cedrus deodar) trees, which are acclaimed globally for their herbal and architectural characteristics.
Sadly, habitat of such valuable eco-resources is in peril due to fires, timber smuggling, soil erosion and other reasons of deforestation.
Government allocates modest resources for forest protection because politicians show little concern for the alarming deforestation; neither have they significant awareness of sustainable development and adaptation interventions in forestry and biodiversity.
As a result, there is a plethora of excuses from government managers when they are questioned about the prevention of forest fires.
“How can we overcome the problem of forests fire, when developed countries like US cannot do so?” one asked.
“And our foresters and guards have to face flames of fire empty handed.”
Sardar Javed Ayub, the country’s forest minister, was quoted in a credible Urdu Daily, seemingly defending his pitiable knowledge about environmental matters and pathetic performance of his subordinates.
In the leadership of forest administers like him, it is obvious that little has been done by the government for the protection and preservation of natural habitats.
Consequently, there is an acute shortage of required trained staff and modern fire fighting operational services.
In this region a forest guard is assigned to safeguard 800-acres of land and in Pakistan’s largest populated state of Punjab, 400 acres of forest land is guarded by a single forest guard.
Last year, over 5,000-acres of forests across Kashmir had come under fire and there is no data available about the recent losses, however, it has been estimated that fires have affected over 2,000 to 3,000 acres of forest land in proximity to populous areas of Mirpur division where the ratio of wildfires are relatively higher than other areas.
Jammu and Kashmir forests are vital in protecting the catchment areas of water reservoirs used for power generation and irrigation for both India and Pakistan which hold political and administrative control of the region.
Kashmir is the origin of many major Indian and Pakistani rivers.
Pakistan has been declared as the second biggest country with respect to deforestation. The FAO says with only 0.05 ha of forest per capita against a world average of 1.0 ha, Pakistan is comparatively forest-poor.
In such gloomy context, environmentalists are concerned over the depletion of ecological resources and biodiversity loss.
“It is not merely a matter of diminution of forest due to the wildfires which alarm us. Indeed, fires are the major intruder to the fragile ecosystem,” Ejaz Ur Rehman an environmentalist, explaining the implications of reduction of natural habitat.
(Zafar Iqbal is a freelance writer and Founder of Press for Peace (PFP). He can be reached at email@example.com)