Past and present conservation scenario of Pakistan

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Pakistan’s record of natural resource conservation is linked with its history of conquest and colonization. Over the past millennia, successive waves of invaders poured through its northern passes into the fertile plains of the subcontinent to the southeast. Indigenous populations were forced into the mountains and foothills to eke out a bare subsistence, which, among other things, entailed clearing of forests for agriculture and grazing. They eventually settled down as small-scale farmers in the perennial stream fed mid elevations and as semi transhumant in the higher altitudes.

Living in close proximity to the forests, they foraged for fodder and extracted timber, fuel wood and other forest products. Equilibrium of sorts was restored, with the viability of such patterns of dependence and extraction being underpinned by subsistence needs and low population pressure. More deliberate attempts at conservation during this early period can be traced to the establishment of game reserves by the rulers, amongst whom hunting was a recognized passion. The local rulers raised the riverain forests of Sindh for this purpose.

Although exclusionist in nature, the creation and enclosure of hunting tracts ensured the preservation of many of the extinct species, most notable among them being the one horned rhino, the lion, tiger, black buck, red deer and the black bear (Biodiversity Action Plan, 1997). Thus, the available records are of an essentially unsettled period, characterized by displacement, relocation and resettlement, which, Humankind has affected our planet in many ways. In the past few centuries, the changes in society and the increasing pace of development mean that the scale of these impacts has catastrophically grown.

There are now many threats to the natural resources of our planet. These include habitat loss and degradation, invasive aliens, over-exploitation of resources, and even climate change. Biodiversity” is the full complexity and variety of life, at all scales, from genetic diversity, up to species and even ecosystem diversity. So, we use the term “biodiversity conservation” to refer to attempts to conserve and any parts of this natural diversity. Plant diversity is a major plant of total biodiversity – just think of the richness of tropical rain forests – it forms the basis of all food webs, and underpins the functioning of all ecosystems. So, plant conservation is an essential component of efforts for biodiversity conservation.

As plants are at risk of extinction, in all parts of the world, their conservation is a priority. By definition, is synonymous with resource degradation. However, the extent of Damage was mitigated by the subsistence needs of a relatively sparse population, and Conscious efforts at conservation of species. Events in the past 400 years of sub continental history were particularly turbulent. This period witnessed degradation on a large scale, instigated by new forms of imperialist domination and associated commercialization of the economy. This was the era of British colonial rule, of large-scale infrastructure construction (railroads, canal networks, cantonments, bridges).

Such developments were fuelled by degradations on a massive scale, namely, the commercial exploitation of coniferous forests, extensive land clearance and the alteration of river ecosystems, resulting in their fragmentation and the disappearance of riverain thorn forests. Shrinking habitats caused many animal species to become extinct (the one horned rhino, the lion, tiger, Asiatic wild dog, cheetah and chau-singa) and endangered others (leopard, gavial, marsh crocodile, black buck, black bear, lynx, caracal and red deer). Feudal hunting privileges, initially a factor in conservation acquired pernicious dimensions with daily game bags running into the hundreds.

The legal and administrative precedents for protected areas management was first laid down in forestry acts, introduced by the British in the mid-nineteenth century. Driven by the need to protect their commercial interests, forest legislation declared all forests the property of the government. As a result, existing community rights to forest resources became proscribed. Initially, all forests were declared reserve forests. Right holders were allowed to cut trees, collect fuel wood and clear land with the permission of the deputy commissioner, while grazing was freely allowed.

Non-right holders had to pay a tax for similar privileges. Recognizing that communities would not take easily to their free access being circumscribed in this fashion, the concessions were increased. Although, ostensibly, returning large tracts of forest, grazing and waste land back to the communities, the management of ‘guzara’ lands continued to reside with the forest department that, furthermore, extracted seignior age for any proceeds generated through sales of forest products. This form of colonial governance was effective only in so far as the administration did not misuse its powers and community needs were relatively limited.

In a more fundamental sense, it was flawed. The top down, non-participatory approach drove a wedge between communities and their birthright by denying them say in its management and subjecting them to legal process, which was often, arbitrary. The unprecedented levels of degradation that the country is experiencing currently, partly has its roots in this. It has engendered conflict and a predatory mindset. Alienated from their resource base, communities are becoming profligate in its use. The post-independence period (1947 – 1966) witnessed a further acceleration of the economic and social transformations underway in the colonial era. The commercialization of agriculture, industrial growth and the demographic explosion continued to exert relentless pressure on the stock of natural capital. Land use changes occurred on a large scale across the country, in the form of irrigation engineering, large dam construction, draining of wetlands, clearing of land for agriculture, industry, mining, roads and settlements.

Forest and river ecosystems, already under threat during the colonial period, began to lose their self-sustaining capabilities. The physical threats to the environment were further exacerbated by the collapse of traditional social structures, as people moved in search of better economic opportunities, losing touch with their roots and traditions. A combination of poverty diversified economic opportunities and the increased commercial value of natural resources (timber, fuel wood, medicinal plants and edibles) encouraged resource overuse rather than conservation. The management system, designed for a specific purpose, was unable to cope with these changes.

The multiple and often conflicting interests of commercial loggers, private developers, government and military agencies, hunters and impoverished communities placed it under relentless strain. The administration tended to choose the path of least resistance, coming down with a heavy hand on the disempowered communities and colluding for personal gain and profit with vested interests. Rising prices of timber, fuel wood and forest products, an erosion in the standard of living of the forest custodians, fines and penalties that were selectively applied and failed to match the nature of the transgression, and royalties that were appropriated by the rich and powerful, combined to create a complex of perverse incentives antithetical to conservation.

The irony is that the key inroads into forest resources began to be made by commercial and development groups which management was not in a position to oppose and in fact, cooperated with. On the other hand, it targeted communities, whose needs were of an essentially subsistence nature and who had their rights and traditions been honored could have collaborated with the authorities in the sustainable management of forest resources.


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