Encroachment, deforestation eat up Chhor forest land
UMERKOT: Encroachment and deforestation over the years has reduced the Chhor reserve forest, which used to cover an area of 3,000 acres, to a mere fraction of its original size.
Declared as a protected site by the British government in 1927, the forest contained five of the seven arid-zone plants in the red list released in 2010 by the environment ministry with collaboration of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Even though it has always remained a protected site, ie even before 1947, most of its land has been encroached upon in some way or other. Only 300 acres of forest land has been left.
According to environmentalist Bharamul Amrani, even during the colonial rule no one was allowed to cut even a dead tree without seeking the permission of the mukhtiarkar. “Under Section 26 of the Sindh Forest Act 1927 and under the Sindh Environment Protection Act 1997, all activities harming the environment, trees or biodiversity of the area were prohibited,” he said.
Four years ago, the forest department banned cutting the Khabar (Salvadora persica) tree. Before this, the same order had been issued by the district and sessions court, Mithi.
Twenty years ago, 800 acres of land was given away by the government to the military so that the Chhor cantonment could be established, said Rano Mangrio, a landlord from nearby Tebhri village.
He said that 20 years ago, the forest used to cover an area of 3,000 acres but about only 300 acres of it remained now.
Dilbar Bhayo, a resident of New Chhor area adjacent to the forest, saod that around 2,000 acres was encroached upon by the area people with the help of forest guards. He said that 20 settlements had been set up on different spots on the forest land.
According to Mr Bhayo, four forest guards were involved in chopping trees and selling timber. “One forest guard has occupied 70 acres of land near the tomb of saint Nasrullah and is using it to grow crops and dig out sand for construction purposes,” he said. “This guard also set up Government Primary School Haji Ahmed Mangrio just to keep occupation of the land. There is neither a village nor a settlement near the school.”
Moreover, said Mr Bhayo, the forest guard has also given a portion of his land to a contractor to dig out reti bajri.
“The contractor sells each trolley for between Rs5,000 and Rs7,000 while pays the forest guard Rs1,500 per trolley.”
He blamed the forest department for its lax attitude, saying that old laws had not been reviewed or updated. “The department imposes a fine of only Rs300 on anyone who built a house on the forest land,” he said.
Three other forest guards were named by Mr Bhayo for taking bribes from encroachers and people who cut trees.
Sheperd Abbas Mangrio, supported the allegation, saying that the forest guards took money for allowing herdsmen for grazing their cattle on the forest land.
When contacted by Dawn, all of the forest guards refused to comment on the issue.
Meanwhile, a forest officer admitted while talking to Dawn that the department knew that forest guards were involved in encroachment, deforestation and selling sand dug from the forest land, but they got away with it because they were ‘influential’.
Explaining government regulations, he said that the forest department could demolish a house built on forest land within 24 hours. Otherwise, the owner could pay a fine of Rs300 for six years.
Besides houses built on forest lands, said the forest officer, vehicles taking away timber are also fined. A donkey cart can be fined from Rs500 to Rs1,500, a Datsun truck from Rs2,500 to Rs3,000 while a tractor trolley can be fined from Rs5,000 to Rs10,000 if found with chopped forest trees.
He said that the forest department had planted new trees in the forest but the trees were cut down before they could grow.
Alluding to another reason for degeneration of the forest, the forest officer said that two decades ago water quota for the forest had been fixed.
He said that forest land had not been demarcated hence no one knew from where it began or ended and how much land was available in each taluka. This made proving encroachment difficult, he added.