Gone are the days the valley was billed as ‘Paradise on Earth’ and ‘The Switzerland of Asia, being a treasure trove of fascinating landscapes, sprawling meadows, azure lakes and fruit orchards.
In many respects, the valley was little more than a holiday destination. Thousands of tourists would visit Swat to relish its sights and sounds and become one with nature. In its towering mountains and spellbinding beauty, they would find momentary reprieve from the cares of the world. Rejuvenated by this rich and spiritual journey, they would return home in a peaceful state of mind.
Unfortunately, the story of its rapid deterioration is now written in every nook and cranny of the valley. What remains are forests, wetlands, wildlife and breeding spaces which are in danger of becoming extinct.
Valley of doom : Home is where you live with your heart lies there. However, when the home you inhabit changes suddenly and drastically, the outcome is far from promising. The animals which inhabit the Swat valley are faced with a similar dilemma. Rising temperatures triggered by climate change have negatively impacted their habitat. As a result, nesting and breeding grounds of most animals have been disturbed.
The lush, dense forests which were once the secret of the valley’s beauty and breeding grounds of the animals have gradually lost their vigour.
It requires little soul-searching to realise that these drastic changes taking place before our very own eyes are inherently man-made. Our ignorance and recklessness has completely defaced the beauty of the valley. Furthermore, outdated legislation on deforestation and illegal hunting has been repeatedly impinged upon.
The wasteland: Interestingly, deforestation isn’t the only problem which plagues the region. Over the years, Swat Valley has turned into a wasteland of eco-friendly practices.
Pollution in the valley has added a heavy layer of silt on the otherwise green landscape. Furthermore, pollutants have been released into the atmosphere, poisoning the soil, waterways and highland pastures.
The water from streams, springs and the Swat River is full of toxic chemicals. It has been contaminated with nutrients from nearby farms and waste from landfills or the streets.
In some cases, people have dumped waste into the river Swat and streams without realising its implications on the quality of water. They fail to see that the debris accumulates in the water in large patches and triggers environmental degradation. Consequently, a majority of streams and springs have either dried up or become contaminated. In the meantime, a vast expanse of muddy water runs through Swat River – a clear testament of deforestation and improper waste disposal practices in the valley.
Timber mafia: The threat of environmental degradation was never this acute. When Swat was a princely state, the situation was comparatively better. Forests were adequately protected because all the major institutions worked in unison to maintain them. Severe punishments were meted out to those who violated laws. No one dared to fell even a single shoot of a tree.
But alas, this form of deterrence has become a thing of the past. In this day and age, the forestry department has failed to implement a similar system of checks and balances. Over the years, a mafia which smuggles timber to different parts of the country has emerged and is mercilessly cutting down Swat’s forests. It is widely assumed that the group is being backed by the forestry department. However, these allegations have not been proved to date.
Interestingly, there are also other causes for the gradual depletion of timber in Swat Valley. For instance, the prevalence of gas loadshedding in the region and the absence of the facility beyond Mingora City and its suburbs has forced people to use timber from forests to cook. Yet, the timber mafia is largely responsible for deforestation in the area.
Trespassing on nature: Professional woodcutters have developed new and innovative techniques to shift timber to the roads. They have built bridges, over which timber is flung directly onto roads from gigantic mountains. This has adversely impacted the environment in the valley and triggered a series of problems.
First and foremost, a large number of sites which bear cultural significance have become neglected and, in many cases, destroyed. There is a lack of interest in preserving these places as they do not have much importance as tourist sites.
The gradual deterioration of the valley serves as a reminder of how trespassing on nature can impact the lives of people and animals. Natural resources are in jeopardy. The activities of the timber mafia have destroyed the natural habitat and ecosystems have not adapted to the changing environment.
At this critical juncture, conservation poses a major challenge. Deforestation requires immediate attention by the forestry department and the government.
Long live the jungle: Muhammad believes cattle have caused immense damage to Swat’s forests and insists that suitable grazing points should be identified to prevent any risk to plant life.
“These grazing points should also be changed from time to time,” he says. “This should ideally happen between February and June – which is the peak time for breeding.”
According to a Community Development Officer (CDO), Faisal Shehzad, the neglected forestry sector can be only salvaged through action rather than rhetoric. Superficial attempts to address structural problems within the department are unlikely to have the desired effect.
“The government should develop a monitoring and evaluation system to achieve its objectives,” Shehzad says. “It should not confine itself to internal monitoring only as most people who conduct internal monitoring could try to hamper the process.” On the other hand, Shehzad advocates the need for third-party monitoring bodies.
“Volunteers are needed to provide oversight in decision-making,” he explains. “They can ensure that the monitoring function is conducted in a neutral manner.”
More significantly, the process should also include a geographic information system (GIS). According to Shehzad, this is a decision-making tool, which, if implemented in the forestry department for roughly five to 10 years, could streamline planning and monitoring.=DNA