Pakistan sends in armed force to stop logging in northern forests

A vendor cuts firewood into pieces to be sold to the customers for cooking and heating at the a local wood market in Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, on March 25, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Updated 01 April 2021

Pakistan sends in armed force to stop logging in northern forests

  • For the next three years, four platoons with 36 members each will be stationed at checkpoints on exit routes from the forest – says PM aide
  • The country loses an estimated 27,000 hectares (66,700 acres) of trees per year

ISLAMABAD: In a fresh bid to halt illegal logging in the scenic northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan has brought in a paramilitary force to stop organized groups from cutting down trees and transporting them to other parts of the country.
The Frontier Constabulary (FC), a civil armed force working under the federal government and led by police officers, was deployed in January to support the regional forest department, which officials say lacks staff, training and funding.
While forests around the world have seen encroachment spike during the pandemic as lockdown measures leave them unguarded, illicit logging in Gilgit-Baltistan has all but stopped since the FC arrived, said chief conservator Zakir Hussain.
Incidents of tree cutting and transport have dropped in both government and community-owned forests, where logging bans are harder to enforce, said Hussain, whose Forests, Parks and Wildlife Department oversees the law enforcement agency.
“The locals have regard for the force,” he said, adding that its deployment had acted as a deterrent to deforestation and raised morale among forestry staff.
“There is no organized pilfering of wood now and the amount being transported outside of the forest is at nearly zero,” he said.
For the next three years, four platoons with 36 members each will be stationed at checkpoints on exit routes from the forest to stop the movement of illegal timber, explained Malik Amin Aslam, the prime minister’s special assistant on climate change.
The FC also patrols regularly and has the power to apprehend people caught cutting down or transporting trees, he added.
Demand for wood in Pakistan, a nation of about 220 million people, is three times higher than its potential sustainable supply, according to the most recent National Forest Policy published in 2015.
The country loses an estimated 27,000 hectares (66,700 acres) of trees per year, mainly in private and community-owned natural forests, the policy noted.
“The forest owners and local communities depend on forests as their sole source of livelihood. As a result, forests in all provinces, particularly in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are under severe pressure,” it said.
A study by a group of Chinese and Pakistani researchers published last year points to a host of factors behind forest losses in Gilgit-Baltistan, including population growth, unchecked cattle grazing, poor forest management and the use of wood as fuel.
Deforestation has led to soil erosion, rising air pollution and higher temperatures in the region, while also degrading some of Pakistan’s prime tourist areas, the study warned.
Hussain said the two main groups responsible for illegal logging in the region are local communities, who mainly cut down trees to use as firewood for cooking and heating, and a powerful “timber mafia” that sells illegally cut wood to timber merchants in other parts of Pakistan.
Efforts to tackle the problem are complicated by geography and lack of infrastructure, he explained.
The region consists of hundreds of valleys with no paved roads connecting them, and many areas have no Internet or phone networks, he said.
On top of those problems, Hussain said, Gilgit-Baltistan’s forestry department does not have enough manpower to oversee the quarter-million hectares of natural forest in the region.
Under the region’s Forest Act of 2019, the department was granted the power to arrest, investigate and prosecute anyone caught illegally logging, but that move has yet to be approved by the cabinet, Hussain said.
Even so, its staff of about 1,000 would need to triple in size to properly protect the region’s forests and wildlife, he added.
“We are under-staffed and lack both in training and equipment, as well as logistics,” he said.
“Our unarmed staff were helpless to stop the illegal timber mafia and local communities before the deployment of the FC.”
Muhammad Tahir, a teacher living in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Diamer district, said that since the Frontier Constabulary arrived in the area forest department employees have stepped up their efforts to tackle illegal logging.
But while the paramilitary force can help stop people from transporting wood out of the forests, local cutters have little option but to fell wood as their main source of fuel, he said.
Tahir said he would like to see the government provide solar energy, natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas to people living in the area and give them incentives to shift to these fuels.
“As long as the government does not provide alternate fuels to locals at cheap rates, this illegal cutting cannot be stopped,” he said.
Syed Kamran Hussain, regional manager for green group WWF-Pakistan, said the deployment of the FC is an effective way to supplement the work of the Gilgit-Baltistan forestry department until it gets more trained staff.
But because about 70% of forested land in the region is owned by local people, no tree protection initiative will succeed unless the government gains the buy-in of forest communities, he added.
“We need to convince the locals that they are owners of these resources and they should protect them,” he said.
Chief conservator Zakir Hussain said the regional government is already encouraging community-based conservation, noting that since the 1990s it has been giving up to 80% of the income from national parks to residents living around them.
“This is necessary so that the community has a sense that they are not alienated by the government and are sharing the benefits of the forests,” he said. 

Pakistan recovered over $370 million in nationwide campaign against power theft — report

Updated 27 sec ago

Pakistan recovered over $370 million in nationwide campaign against power theft — report

  • The South Asian nation’s power sector has long been plagued by high rates of electricity theft and distribution losses
  • Authorities have arrested 83,000 individuals for involvement in power theft since the announcement of a campaign this year

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has recovered more than $370 million in a nationwide campaign against electricity theft, Pakistani state media reported on Sunday.
The South Asian nation’s power sector has been plagued by high rates of electricity theft and distribution losses, resulting in accumulating debts across the production chain.
In March, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi announced that authorities had launched a “massive crackdown” against electricity and gas theft, aiming for fair distribution of utilities and access to all citizens.
“In a countrywide campaign against power pilferage, 105 billion ($377 million) rupees have been recovered,” the state-run Radio Pakistan broadcaster reported. “More than 83,000 individuals involved in power theft have been arrested.”
From June 30 till July 17, authorities collected more than Rs1 billion from power pilferers in Punjab’s Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Multan cities as well as in the federal capital of Islamabad, according to the report.
Another Rs430 million were recovered from Peshawar, Hyderabad, Sukkur and Quetta during this period. This was a result of actions taken by the government to revive the country’s economy and bring people out of the power crisis.
Relevant institutions were determined to continue their operations until complete elimination of power theft from the country, it added.
The report comes days after Pakistan reached a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new $7 billion loan.
Energy sector debt has already been a main issue that the IMF has highlighted in tackling Pakistan’s fiscal deficit, telling the South Asian nation to prevent further accumulation of circular debt in its power sector arising from subsidies and unpaid bills.
The lender has asked to implement reforms to reduce costs by improving electricity transmission and distribution, moving captive power into the grid, improving governance, and combating theft.

Pakistan to push Chinese utilities in Pakistan to switch to domestic coal

Updated 21 July 2024

Pakistan to push Chinese utilities in Pakistan to switch to domestic coal

  • Such a transition would benefit the Chinese-owned plants in Pakistan by reducing pressure on Islamabad’s foreign exchange reserves
  • The transition could save Pakistan over $700 million a year in imports, translating to a drop of as much as Rs2.5 in per unit electricity price

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan this month will ask Chinese power plants operating in the country to shift to using coal from Pakistan’s Thar region rather than imported coal, the power minister said on Sunday.
Islamabad may also begin talks on re-profiling Pakistan’s energy sector debt during the visit to Beijing, Awais Leghari, head of the energy ministry’s Power Division, told Reuters.
Leghari will be part of the delegation to discuss structural reforms to the power sector suggested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which last week agreed on a $7 billion bailout for the heavily indebted South Asian nation.
Neighbouring China has set up over $20 billion worth of energy projects in Pakistan.
“One of the key purposes of going along is the conversion of our imported coal units to the local coal. That would have a huge impact on the cost of energy, of power in the near future. So that is one of the biggest (items on the) agenda,” Leghari said in an interview.
Such a transition would benefit the Chinese-owned plants in Pakistan by reducing pressure on Islamabad’s foreign exchange reserves, he said, making it easier to repatriate dividends and offering a better return in dollar terms.
The transition could save Pakistan more than 200 billion Pakistani rupees ($700 million) a year in imports, translating to a decrease of as much as 2.5 Pakistani rupees per unit in the price of electricity, Leghari said.
In April a subsidiary of conglomerate Engro agreed to sell all of its thermal assets, including Pakistan’s leading coal producer, Sindh Engro Coal Mining to Pakistan’s Liberty Power. Liberty said the decision stemmed from Pakistan’s foreign exchange crunch and its indigenous coal reserve potential.
The minister declined to elaborate on the possible talks with China over re-profiling energy debt.
Pakistan’s power sector has been plagued by high rates of power theft and distribution losses, resulting in accumulating debt across the production chain — a concern raised by the IMF.
The government is implementing structural reforms to reduce “circular debt” — public liabilities that build up in the power sector due to subsidies and unpaid bills — by 100 billion Pakistani rupees ($360 million) a year, Leghari said.
Poor and middle-class households have been affected by a previous IMF bailout reached last year, which included raising power tariffs as part of the funding program that ended in April.
Annual power use in Pakistan is expected to fall consecutively for the first time in 16 years as higher tariffs curb household consumption, despite summer temperatures surging to near records, which typically boosts air conditioning and fan use.
“We have seen a shrinking demand trend in the past year or year and a half, and we are expecting this to continue unless we rationalize the price of power,” Leghari said, adding that the government’s major challenge was get demand to stop shrinking.
He said that since the per-unit tariff for power is more expensive, both urban and rural households are moving toward alternatives such as solar.
“Right now we have close to 1,000 megawatts that are on the grid itself in the form of net metering systems and others. It’s a very conservative estimate that (solar) could be five to six times more than that on the grid right now,” Leghari said.

Pakistan’s Hajj Medical Mission wraps up operations, says treated over 169,000 pilgrims 

Updated 21 July 2024

Pakistan’s Hajj Medical Mission wraps up operations, says treated over 169,000 pilgrims 

  • Pakistan Hajj Medical Mission also treated pilgrims from other countries who sought assistance, says director 
  • Over 400-member mission provided pilgrims with health care facilities in Makkah and Madinah since May 9

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Hajj Medical Mission wrapped up its operations in Saudi Arabia this week after treating over 169,000 pilgrims in the kingdom, the mission’s director confirmed on Sunday. 

Over 160,000 Pakistanis attended this year’s annual Hajj pilgrimage, which ran from June 14-19. Pakistan established two hospitals and 11 dispensaries in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah on May 9. 

“The Pakistan Hajj Medical Mission completed its operations in Saudi Arabia on July 20, and since the start of services on May 9 this year, almost 169,000 pilgrims received free health treatment,” Brig. Jamil Ahmed Lakhair, the mission’s director, told Arab News over the phone from Makkah.

Lakhair said that out of the total number of patients, at least 60 percent were male while 40 percent were women. He said the mission also provided services to pilgrims from other countries who sought medical assistance.

Lakhair said a dedicated team of over 400 members from the medical mission tirelessly performed their duties to assist Pakistani pilgrims in Saudi Arabia during the annual Islamic pilgrimage.

“More than 19000 lab tests were done on almost 4000 patients and around 5000 patients availed dental treatment facilities, including minor procedures,” he revealed. Lakhair said over 3,000 patients availed radiological facilities, including ultrasound, at the hospital.

The Pakistani official credited the Saudi government for ensuring excellent medical facilities, praising their robust patient evacuation system and well-equipped hospitals, adding that Pakistan’s medical mission helped pilgrims access these facilities.

“Two hundred and fifty patients treated in tertiary care facilities of the kingdom’s hospitals as indoor cases,” Lakhair said. 

He shared that over 12,000 pilgrims were treated as emergency cases while 188 bed-ridden patients were taken to Arafat for Hajj rituals in ambulances and buses.

He said respiratory tract infections and musculoskeletal problems were the most common among pilgrims, accounting for 18 percent of the total cases, followed by gastrointestinal problems at 12 percent, diabetes mellitus at 11 percent, unspecified fever at 9 percent, and cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension and ischemic heart diseases, at 5 percent

Thousands continue sit-in protest in northwestern Pakistan after shooting incident 

Updated 21 July 2024

Thousands continue sit-in protest in northwestern Pakistan after shooting incident 

  • Gunfire targeting Bannu peace rally triggered stampede that killed 2, injured over 20 on Friday
  • Protesters form 30-member committee to hold talks with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government 

PESHAWAR: Thousands of protesters continued to stage a sit-in protest for the second consecutive day in the northwestern city of Bannu on Sunday, demanding peace days after a shooting incident triggered a stampede that caused the deaths of at least two people. 
At least two persons were killed and more than 20 injured after gunfire triggered a stampede at the procession attended by tens of thousands of people in the northwestern city on Friday. The demonstration was held at a time when Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which borders Afghanistan, has witnessed a surge in attacks on security forces, government officials and anti-polio vaccination teams in recent weeks.
The shocking increase in daily attacks led the residents of the area to demand peace only a few days after 10 soldiers were killed by militants in Bannu’s cantonment area.
Following the attack, thousands of protesters staged a sit-in protest on Saturday in Bannu, demanding peace and an end to further military operations in KP. 
“Talks are being held between the district administration and local elders to restore durable peace in the area,” KP government spokesperson Muhammad Ali Saif said in a statement. “A meeting of elders will soon be arranged with the chief minister.”
Local residents and some Pakistani politicians accused the security forces of the shooting incident, though the KP spokesperson was reticent about who was responsible.
Protesters have formed a 30-member committee to hold talks with the provincial government on the issue. 
Dil Nawaz, one of the participants of the protest, said tribes from Bannu district were represented in the 30-member committee. He said the committee was empowered to hold talks with the KP government to ensure their demands were accepted. 
“Politicians from the Awami National Party (ANP), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and elders from the adjacent Lakki Marwat and Karak districts have visited Bannu, are meeting protesters and assuring them of their support to achieve peace,” Nawaz said. 
He said the committee members comprised local elders, current and former lawmakers of the national and provincial assemblies of Pakistan, members of the Bannu Chamber of Commerce, religious leaders, lawyers and journalists. 
“We will continue with our protest till our demands are not met,” Nawaz vowed. “We were protesting peacefully and this [shooting] happened. This was an unjust act against us.”
A six-member opposition alliance, the Tehreek Tahafuz Ayeen-e-Pakistan (or the Movement to Protect the Constitution of Pakistan) demanded the formation of a judicial commission to probe the shooting incident on Saturday.
The demand was put forward after the alliance met on Saturday to discuss the issue. 
“They demanded that an independent judicial commission should be constituted immediately to probe into the deaths and injuries caused by the firings on Bannu Aman [Peace] March,” a press release by the alliance read.
The alliance stressed the need for a judicial commission to probe the incident, saying it should be headed by a serving judge. It said the judge should be “free from any external pressure” to ensure a transparent investigation into the Bannu incident.

The press release added the meeting criticized senior police and provincial administration officials, saying they had “miserably failed in restoring peace in the province” and must be dismissed.

Pakistan strongly condemns attack on Frankfurt consulate by ‘gang of extremists’

Updated 21 July 2024

Pakistan strongly condemns attack on Frankfurt consulate by ‘gang of extremists’

  • People carrying Afghanistan’s flag attacked Pakistan’s Frankfurt consulate on Saturday, took down country’s national flag
  • Pakistan calls on German authorities to take “immediate measures” to arrest and prosecute those involved in incident 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson on Sunday strongly condemned an attack on its Frankfurt consulate by what it described were a “gang of extremists,” urging German authorities to take action and arrest those involved in the incident. 

Footage on social media from Saturday showed a large crowd of angry people carrying Afghanistan’s national flag, jumping the fence into the Pakistan consulate in Frankfurt and taking down Pakistan’s flag.

As per various Pakistani media reports, the people were reportedly Afghan nationals who pelted the consulate with stones during their protest. 

“Pakistan strongly condemns yesterday’s attack by a gang of extremists on its consulate in Frankfurt, Germany and the failure of the German authorities to protect the sanctity and security of the premises of its consular Mission,” Foreign Office Spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said in a statement. 

Baloch stressed that under the Vienna Convention 1963, it is the responsibility of the host country to protect the sanctity of the consular premises and ensure the security of diplomats.

“In yesterday’s incident, the security of Pakistan’s consulate in Frankfurt was breached, endangering the lives of its consular staff,” she said. 

“We are conveying our strong protest to the German Government.”

The spokesperson urged the German government to ensure the security of Pakistan’s diplomatic missions and staff in Germany. 

“We also urge the German authorities to take immediate measures to arrest and prosecute those involved in yesterday’s incident and hold to account those responsible for the lapses in security,” she said.

In a separate message on social media platform X, Pakistan’s embassy in Germany called on the people to remain “patient and calm” after the incident. 

Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have steadily increased since the Afghan Taliban seized Kabul in August 2021. Pakistan has witnessed a surge in militant attacks on its soil since November 2022 after a fragile truce between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) outfit broke down.

Pakistan blames Afghanistan for sheltering TTP militants and has asked Kabul to take action against them. However, Afghanistan denies the allegations and has warned Pakistan against carrying out its threats of conducting cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

Tensions between both countries escalated further in March this year after Pakistan struck alleged militant targets inside Afghanistan. Kabul said the strikes killed three women and three children.

Ties between the two countries also took a hit after Pakistan last year launched a deportation drive to expel undocumented foreigners from its country, which mainly targeted Afghan nationals. 

Over 600,000 Afghan nationals have since last year left Pakistan and returned to their country, which they had left over the past couple of decades due to war and persecution.