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Kashmir's Forests Under Siege by Poaching, War

Unarmed guards try to protect environment. But violence abets the destruction in region disputed by India, Pakistan and Islamists.

March 09, 2003|Mujtaba Ali Ahmad | Associated Press Writer

SRINAGAR, India — For three generations, Bashir Khan's family has helped guard the splendid forests of India's northern state of Jammu-Kashmir -- the Himalayan region fought over for decades by Pakistan, Muslim insurgents and India.

Khan and hundreds of other unarmed forest guards are not fighters, but 72 have been killed over the last 13 years in the insurgency and in trying to protect the mountain woodlands from timber poachers.

"The first fallout of militancy in the state was easy access to weapons. The traditional timber smugglers weren't shy of using them," said Khan, 48. "Hundreds of hectares [acres] of forest land have been destroyed since 1990."

India and Pakistan, which both claim all of Kashmir, have fought two wars over the territory since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. There is almost daily gunfire across the cease-fire line that divides the region between the two countries.

Since 1989, about a dozen Islamic militant groups have been fighting to separate the Jammu-Kashmir region from India and join it to neighboring Pakistan or create an independent state.

Fighting between the insurgents and Indian security forces, combined with a boom in population that has increased timber poaching and illegal hunting, are taking a toll on the beautiful landscape.

Set in the Himalayas at 5,600 feet above sea level, Kashmir is a green, saucer-shaped valley filled with fruit orchards and surrounded by snowy mountain ranges. Glacier-fed streams flow down through forests, hillsides and grasslands covered with wildflowers, filling about 100 lakes.

Environmentalists say Jammu-Kashmir has lost more than 59 square miles of forest out of 7,722 square miles since 1989. Cedar, pine, fir, willow, birch and poplar trees have been felled.

Wildlife is threatened too.

The Kashmiri red deer, or Hangul, the state animal, has been declared endangered by the World Wildlife Fund, and only 500 remain in protected areas.

Snow leopards are killed for their skin or by frightened villagers. Ibex, Himalayan musk deer, the blue bull and migratory birds have also suffered.

Stripping the land of old-growth forest creates bare hillsides exposed to heavy rainfall. Water rushes down the hills, eroding the loose soil, and flowing into rivers and lakes, such as the mirror-like Dal Lake in the state capital of Srinagar, which is becoming overgrown with weeds and sludge.

The Dachigam Forest is the catchment area for the springs and underground water channels that feed the Dal Lake, said Mian Javed, a senior forest official and wildlife warden. "With heavy felling of trees in the catchment area, water levels of the lake were dangerously reduced. This was compounded by erosion, resulting in lakebed siltation."

A forest protection group was formed in 1996, but it is not armed, and its members are afraid to patrol.

"The various security agencies have not given clearance for arming forest guards," said Kashmir's chief forest conservator, A. R. Wadoo. "This emboldens smugglers."

In the few areas where patrols are possible, reforestation has some mountainsides covered in trees again. But Wadoo said many areas are out of bounds for forest guards because they are close to the frontier and other security zones.

"My guards cannot patrol in the night because of stringent security in forest areas, but smugglers can smuggle their pack mules on the same routes," he said.

Mohammad Maqbool, a retired forest official turned conservationist, said a 30% jump in Jammu-Kashmir's human population since 1991 is a big problem, bringing more timber poaching and the overgrazing of livestock.

Environmental rejuvenation would take at least 25 years of continuous restoration efforts. "It takes an hour to cut down a fully grown Kashmiri cedar, but it takes over 30 years for one to grow to its full size," he said.

In 1996, the state forest department began reforestation in highly degraded areas, planting more than 55 million trees on 141,000 acres, Wadoo said.

"Guarding regeneration is more difficult," he said. "Stray cattle could wreak havoc in those tender, infant green lands if we let down our guard."

Most people who live in Kashmir's forest area -- one-fifth of the Indian-controlled part of the region -- depend on agriculture or livestock breeding.

"Clearing trees for farmland and increased grazing is a major forest-endangering practice," Wadoo said.

In Kashmir, six head of cattle need five acres of forest land for grazing, although the law permits only one. Most pastureland is next to forests, so as villages expand, they encroach on forest.

Wadoo's forest management program calls for village committees to take responsibility for forest preservation, with technical assistance and funds from his department.

"Natural regeneration is the best way for forests to grow. But ... these regions should be nurtured and protected. Unless that happens, even effects of nature's healing could be lost," he said.

India has had some successes. In the early 1990s, the forests of the Sind Valley were felled and the mountainsides left bare. But conservation efforts begun in 1996 restored "almost complete cover around the Sind Valley," Wadoo said.

The forestry budget of $2 million a year is not enough, though, he said.

Help may be at hand. The Norwegian government recently promised Jammu-Kashmir's government $31 million for a reforestation project, development of grassland and introduction of modern agricultural techniques, state finance minister M. H. Beig said.

Forest officials say that will help -- if it comes.

"We don't know when we will get that money. Up to now, we have only been promised 1 million rupees [$20,880] for a pilot reforestation project," Wadoo said.

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