The federal capital’s municipal body tasked with protecting the city’s beauty, Capital Development Authority (CDA), is investigating whether the US Embassy in Islamabad has been cutting down trees in the capital in a clear violation of the law.
"There is an active investigation into the matter, Ramazan Sajid, spokesperson for the CDA told The Washington Post.
According to Sajid, the US Embassy recently requested permission to cut down 94 trees to make way for the next phase of an ongoing $1 billion expansion, for which permission was not granted.
"Before a [no-objection certificate] was issued, a contractor hired by the embassy started cutting the trees. Those trees were loaded onto a truck and being carried away when the truck was stopped by police. The police took the truck and the contractor to the police station,” Sajid said.
Read: Expressway expansion: ‘CDA told to abide by environmental laws’
Confirming the incident, an assistant police inspector, Muhammad Irshad, said, "Police intercepted the truck when it came out of the diplomatic enclave loaded with trees, and he [the driver] was brought to the police station."
However, the driver was released after someone showed up at the station with a receipt indicating that he had paid a $300 fine to the CDA, Irshad confirmed.
Although Islamabad police consider the case to be closed, the ongoing CDA investigation is likely to prompt fresh questions about why the embassy needs to cut down 94 trees to expand what is already a heavily fortified, 38-acre compound.
Sajid further said that Islamabad police confiscated 13 trees from the truck while authorities tried to determine the number of trees that had been cut down and whether the law was deliberately violated by the embassy.
"We have sent a letter to the embassy seeking more details," Sajid said.
“I can’t say whether anyone from the embassy was involved, but it’s a fact that trees were cut without [permission], which is illegal," he added.
Read: US embassy wants to retain six barriers
Further, speaking on the condition of anonymity, a US official offered to discuss the matter and said the incident was limited to one truckload of trees. The official further stressed that US Embassy personnel were not involved in the incident.
“We understand that a contractor associated with the construction of a new embassy compound in Islamabad attempted to remove one truckload of felled trees from the construction without the required No Objection Certificate, and the CDA has since fined the contractor,” the official said in a statement.
“The US Embassy has not removed any trees from the construction site without a permit," he further claimed.
For many years, the planned expansion of the US Embassy has been controversial in Islamabad with the federal capital coming to be known as one of the world's greenest cities.
Critics of the expansion in 2009 spread rumours that the United States was preparing to quietly station American troops or CIA agents on the property. More recently, an ongoing case in the Supreme Court is seeking to block the embassy from acquiring an additional 18 acres for its expansion. It is unclear whether those plans are related to the tree-cutting controversy.
“Only trees that fall within the footprint of new construction have been felled during the project, and a significant number of trees from the old embassy grounds have been relocated to the new compound,” said the US official, adding that “extraordinary effort has been taken to preserve plants and trees where possible.”
In order to maintain its beauty and protect its greenery, anyone wanting to cut down a tree must first seek approval from the CDA, which often denies the requests.
Read: Pakistan's glaciers melting faster than rest of the world
Two years ago, USAID Pakistan co-hosted a “tree planting” campaign in Pakistan on World Environment Day.
Despite Islamabad’s greenery, Pakistan overall has retained just 2 per cent to 5 per cent of its tree canopy because of deforestation, according to estimates by private and public organisations. That rapid rate of tree loss has been blamed for Pakistan's struggle to combat lethal floods, disruptive landslides, poor water quality and air pollution.
The US Agency for International Development, which operates locally from the US Embassy, has partnered with several Pakistani organisations over the years to try to combat this problem.
This article originally appeared on The Washington Post