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Poverty and Illegal Traders Strip Pakistan Of Protective Trees

Government urges agroforestry approach

NASRIN FAROOQ AYUB is an unusual Pakistani woman. In a male-dominated society, she is not only one of the few women who runs her own 200-acre farm outside Lahore - Pakistan's second largest city - but her farming philosophy is also different.

While Pakistan grapples with increasing deforestation, Mrs. Ayub grows trees.

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``People think that if they grow trees, because of the shade, they may not be able to have their regular crops,'' she says, explaining why many farmers are still shy of the forestry business.

``I myself did not know about it until I came and visited a few forests and saw how it was done and then I started working on my farm,'' adds Mrs. Ayub, describing the way in which she began a project to plant more than 100,000 sapplings on her farm. While Ayub is content with her work, Pakistan suffers because few want to emulate her.

The government estimates that up to 5 percent of the country's territory is covered by forest. But many independent experts and officials disagree.

``The land that the government talks about is the legal description of the land which was designated for forests. But a good part of that is now bare because of deforestation over the years,'' says a senior official, who requested anonymity.

The most visible economic consequence is an annual import bill of 3.5 billion rupees ($116 million) for wood and wood products - valuable foreign exchange for a country that is trying to cut down on imports.

However, the environmental consequences may be more alarming. ``We are not only depleting the [forestry] resource on a long-term basis, but we are very adversely affecting our environment,'' says Khalid Mehmood Siddiqui, director general of the prestigious Pakistan Forestry Institute in Peshawar.

``The prime example is the floods of 1992, wherein there was high rainfall in the Northern part [of the country] and in the absence of tree cover on the hills, all the water came rushing down. And it caused havoc in the plains,'' Mr. Siddiqui says.

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In response to the challenge, the government is continuing a campaign to provide sapplings at subsidized rates to farmers to encourage more tree plantations. Many farmers are being advised to adopt ``agroforestry'' - planting trees on the borders of fields while growing other cash crops. The target is to double the number of trees in the country within the next 15 years.

However, many farmers claim that the profit margin for growing trees remains slim. Part of the problem is an inadequate marketing network, which means that the tree growers cannot always sell their trees at a price that covers their investment and provides better profit than other agrobusinesses.

According to Siddiqui, some deforestation is caused by poverty. While in other cases, well organized timber traders, known as the ``timber mafia,'' are responsible. ``We have to recognize that there is a need for forest products and there is a greed for forest products,'' he says.

Siddiqui recommends alternative sources of energy and employment for the poor, who are driven to chopping trees down as a means of income and firewood. Some other officials favor stiff new laws, possibly with jail sentences, to force the powerful traders to withdraw.

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