CHITRAL: Standing tall against the lush green mountains and vast tracts of agricultural land, walnut trees have a deep-rooted connection with the cultural and religious legacy of Kalash valleys. Economic feasibility is only one facet of the equation. Although walnuts that grow on these trees have generated revenue for Kalash, they have also been of direct and indirect benefit for locals.
Qadeerak, a spiritual elder of Kalash, tells The Express Tribune walnut trees and are considered sacred in the region.
“This is why walnuts are considered the most eminent of all fruits,” he explains.
He added concerted efforts are made to harvest walnuts.
“Once the fruit ripens, people start plucking them from trees and stockpiling them,” Qadeerak says.
The walnut kernels are ground to make a roti or flatbread that resembles a platter of pizza. More often than not, walnut trees are where residents seek much-needed shade in scorching summer heat. However, heavy flooding in Chitral has threatened the fruit.
Walnut oil was used by a large number of residents for over three decades. Kalash women were particularly adept at extracting oil from the fruit. However, the high demand for walnuts and ever-increasing prices have shifted the production of walnut oil from the home to the markets.
This has raised a network of problems for locals. Qadeerak says people have repeatedly complained that they are being provided artificial oil.
“In nearly every household, you will find people suffering from heart disease or high blood pressure,” he explains. “This was not the case when only walnut oil was consumed by the locals.”
Many locals have decided not to consume walnut oil anymore due to the risks involved. It is only used on religious occasions now.
Traders from all over the country have thronged to the valleys to buy them. Many of them are so eager to make the purchase that they pay locals even before the crop has matured. As expected, there is no shortage of swindlers who set up shop in Kalash and sell walnuts, which are not harvested locally, at the same price as the indigenous variety.
Cut me down
The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal government dealt a critical blow to the valleys after it gave the green signal for the felling of walnut trees in Kalash.
A large number of opportunists bought walnut trees from the helpless locals at nominal prices and started cutting them down. The matter was brought to the media’s attention and local journalists faced lawsuits worth Rs10 million in damages for highlighting the issue. After two years of an acrimonious court battle, the matter was decided in favour of the journalists.
The government may have imposed a ban on the cutting of walnut trees in Kalash, however, it can do little to prevent nature’s wrath in this regard.
Recent floods in Chitral have triggered widespread destruction to walnut trees and forced major stakeholders to reassess the problem. Imran Kabir, a minority member of the district council, tells The Express Tribune around 200 walnut trees were destroyed.
“This has threatened the local economy and caused losses worth millions of rupees,” he said. “Children used to sell walnuts to pay for school. Now, many of them have lost their main source of income. According to Kabir, walnut seeds should be distributed among residents to help revive the local economy.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2015.