From enchanted forest to sleepy hollow

Abdullah Sheikh April 22, 2010

HYDERABAD: There used to be the sound of leaves rustling in the wind but now there is only the crunch of dead grass underfoot. Tucked away in Matiari district, 45 kilometres away from Hyderabad, the forest Raghees Mureed is a peaceful stretch of land where century-old trees had once occupied 3,300 acres of flourishing land. “It used to be paradise,” says Ghulam Mustafa, who lives there.

“There was a lot of grass, a lot of honey, a lot of dry wood for people to collect.” Another forest dweller, Haji Murad, has similar memories. “Landlords would plant watermelons, so many that you couldn’t keep track,” he recalls. “No one stopped us from eating them. Those were the days of harmony.” There is a legend they like to tell that before Partition, one man who was caught cutting off one piece of wood from the forest, was jailed for 12 months.

“In the time of the British, corruption was the one thing that was not a problem,” he reminisces. But the once-thriving forest has slowly been reduced to an empty, dusty shell. In 2005, the government came up with a policy that allowed people to cut trees and forcibly take over the land. According to Zain Daudpoto of the Indus Development Organisation, people with ties with ministers were able to get ‘leases’, which allowed them to take over the land and cut down the trees. By now, entire species of flora are in danger of extinction. “People don’t even leave the animals alone,” says Haji Murad. “They use hunting as an excuse and are killing them too.”

Gone are the days when he would take his herd to the forest for grass. Everybody would sleep under the shade of trees in the summers, he says. “These days I don’t even go half a mile into the forest. Within this space, our animals survive, we survive.” Villagers say that they have been unable to earn an income to support their families since the destruction of the forest. The trees were first cut for fuel and to make railway tracks during the Second World War. They were attacked again in 1992 when the government, in search of dacoits allegedly hiding in the area, burnt down a large number of trees.

There have been some efforts to protect the land but they are too feeble to face the onslaught of greed. “In 2009, the Sindh government had called for a plantation drive after which we planted 35,000 plants in this forest,” says Indus Development Organisation’s Daudpoto. “The guards and forest department officials took good care of these plants. We invested around Rs0.4 million for this project. Then on February 26, a few men came and within a few hours, they destroyed all our efforts.” The organisation believe that unless locals and the government do something, the forest will be completely destroyed.

The government, for its part, has yet to stem the destruction. “We have heard that many forests have been cut,” says Matiari DCO Saqib Soomro. “This is done by a group of encroachers. But from the district’s point of view, we should not let it happen.” Even if the officials at the forest catch anyone found cutting the trees there is little they can do. Matiari forest department representative Malik Dino says that the punishments are “too light” to deter people.

And even then, some of them are so well connected that they can get off scott free anyway. Apart from the thousands of plants that were cut in February, men with friends in high places also cut down the rest of the trees over 31 acres of protected forestland over the next few months, after which nothing was left. “All the guards and people ran as soon as they heard,” says Daudpoto. “But the men [cutting the trees] were many and powerful. What could we do?”


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