Kakapir village: Fishermen fear the elusive ‘mangrove mafia’ and eco-devastation

Locals live in fear of a land mafia, whose existence is denied by officials .

Noman Ahmed August 11, 2011

KARACHI: Fear still lurks at a coastal neighbourhood where two alleged murders took place three months back around mysterious circumstances. Kakapir - a two-acre village of nearly 300 homes for 2,000 residents - is as old as the local fishermen’s folklore about the mangrove forests.

The village arrives four kilometres ahead of the coast guard check post further down the Mauripur road that bifurcates to go east towards the Sandspit beach.

A common saying among the fishermen suggests that God commanded the mangroves to sustain earth and its dwellers. The mangroves, in turn, decided to fend off storms and tsunamis by stretching their roots deep down to prevent soil erosion and to serve as a habitat for a wide variety of fish.

However, this conviction was instilled just as World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated their conservation and development projects by involving locals as partners.

Abdul Ghani, the son of a watchman and one of the two men who were allegedly killed, was handed the task to take the lead in protecting the mangrove forests from timber and land mafia. He set up the Fisherfolk Development Organisation (FDO), which partnered with the international organisations.

Mangrove mafia

Residents helplessly and suspiciously stare at strangers who arrive in the neighborhood. They clam up. “I don’t wish to die at their hands,” one resident says, declining to comment on the alleged murders and hinting at the feared presence of the ‘mafia’. “You will be gone today to never come back here again, but ‘they’ come every other day to threaten us. Even the police supports them.”

The fear has not deterred one man, Akbar Kaka, who appears determined to fight. He is using his position as the vice president of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) to take up the responsibility of protecting the community. “I’m following the footsteps of slain Abdul Ghani and Haji Abu Bakar,” he vows.

According to him, a man named Haji Younus heads the alleged mafia, from Younusabad, a neighbouring village, and his son Zulfiqar Younus, started selling encroached land after cutting down its mangrove forests and filling up the creeks.

Consequently, the fishing community decided to take legal action against them by filing an FIR. However, former SHO Nasrullah Khan refused to register the case, which would have necessitated an arrest. Akbar further alleged that the criminals were continuously being abetted by the police and have even stopped water tankers from coming to the activists’ homes.

Given the police’s lack of cooperation, Ghani filed a petition in the Sindh High Court in 2006, impleading the land grabbers as well as government officials for deforesting the mangroves. Akbar alleged that this move ultimately resulted in Ghani’s murder on May 6.

However, Mauripur police station SHO Idrees Bangash denies the allegation. “Untll now, no activity of cutting mangroves has come to notice within the jurisdiction of my police station,” he said, while unknowingly revealing his ignorance of 400 hectares of mangrove swamps. “Kon sa itna bara jangal hai ke katai ho is mein [The jungle is not big enough anyway to be used for cutting]”.

‘A battle for power’

According to Bangash, the entire episode seems like a battle for power and money. Prior to the establishment of the FDO by Ghani, Haji Younus was regarded as the undisputed elder of the community. However, the PFF soon took the top slot, as residents of Kakapir were granted representation in the organisation.

Haji Younus, however, denies the accusation. “The allegations are baseless. I made [Ghani] union councilor twice but later the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum people led him astray,” he says.

Muhamamd Siddiq, who is now the organiser of the FDO in the village, says that the UNDP-supported project “Mangroves Eco Tourism” has also been put to halt for the past three months. “Two boats, along with the pier, have been burnt by Zulfiqar Younus and his goons,” laments Siddiq.

Justice, undelivered

Abdul Ghani’s mother, Hajra Siddique Hajiani, awaits justice for the killing of her son. “The present government is a government of thieves,” says the 68-year old, in her balmy Sindhi accent. “Abdul Qadir Patel [an MNA and chairman of the standing committee on interior] supports the land mafia and even tells the Maripur police station to provide them cover. My son tried to stop them and paid the price.”

Interestingly, the ruling party’s Taj Haider had admitted at a meeting organised by the PFF on February 1 this year that ‘two mafia men’ do enjoy political support. Haider condemned their actions and assured that they would not have his support.

However, three months since the murders, the mangrove creeks continue to be filled up, threatening the ecosystem, as well as the livelihood of the local fishing communities. And the high court stay order banning further damage to the mangroves continues to be mocked. On July 29, the last date of hearing of Abdul Ghani’s filed petition, the court finally appointed its Nazir as commissioner to examine whether mangroves were still being erased or not.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2011.

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