“This forest range is our treasure and planting trees to recover the green gold is the best activity that will be rewarded in this world and in hereafter,”
On a sunny day in May, Ghulam Mohiudin Rather of Budgam district travelled five kilometers to reach Drung area to plant saplings of pine trees in the denuded forest of Pir Panjal mountain range.
Rather was a part of large group of volunteers, which included school children also, who had come from different parts of the Kashmir valley to plant pine saplings in the forests.
Rather, 60, says that mountain range from Drung to Sitharan was a dense forest, covered by pine and deodar trees. But the decades of timber smuggling has left the whole range naked and impacted the climate and agricultural activity in the area.
Drung and Sitharan lie along the picturesque Tosamaidan meadows in Budgam, over 3,000 acres of which was till 2014 used by army for practicing artillery fire until 2014 when it was de-notified. The range was leased out to army in 1964 by the then government.
“Many factors are responsible for this huge deforestation. One was the location of Tosamaidan firing range of army because due to artillery use forest fires were common, lack of livelihood opportunities for the inhabitants of this area was also a reason,” Rather says.
“So timber smuggling was the main source of livelihood besides cattle rearing in this hill range,” he says.
Timber smuggling was quite rampant in Kashmir valley since 1980s as people living near forest areas would find it an easy source of livelihood. And after eruption of militancy in 90s, law enforcement became quite weak.
As per forest department records, 65 percent forest cover of the hill range declined from the past many years due to smuggling and firing range.
“The area has witnessed a huge loss of vegetation that has hit the glacial cover in the region, declining its water resources and hence impacting agriculture and other allied activities,” says Irfan Rasool Wani, an IFS officer, who has served in the forest range.
But since 2013, people who would axe trees in this range and smuggle them to Srinagar and other nearby areas for money have now become its guardians and plantation volunteers.
It was due to the efforts of a group of volunteers led by Dr Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, who also runs School for Rural Development and Environment (SRDE) for environment protection,and support by some philanthropists that the smugglers turned tree planters and volunteers to reforest the whole area.
From the last five years the group is creating awareness and planting trees in Kashmir valley’s Pir Panjal forests to recover the loss and increase the green cover.
“Our journey of plantation began in 2013 when I along with some local men began planting trees in the forest range from Drung to Sitharan range,” Dr Rasool says.
Due to the awareness about forestation and importance of forests, it is local people like Rather who have been involved in turning the naked forests into green cover.
“This forest range is our treasure and planting trees to recover the green gold is the best activity that will be rewarded in this world and in hereafter,” Rather says.
So far, the group says they have planted more than 1.5 lakh trees in the forests of Budgam and Shopian, the two districts lying on the foot of Pir Panjal mountain range. The pine saplings are bought by an automobile businessman, Abdul Hameed Bhat from Jammu and Kashmir’s Forest department and then locals and school children mobilized by Dr Rasool volunteer to plant these saplings in the deforested areas.
“The group has helped the forest department recover the lost green cover and created a massive awareness in the area about forests and disadvantages of felling the trees for smuggling,” says Wani, the IFS officer.
The tree-lovers say the “green drives” are held with a twin objective of afforestation and inculcating promotion of forestation among locals.
“The plantation drives sensitize people living near forests to understand importance of forests and conserve environment for future generations as well for better climate,” says Nazir Ahmad, a young volunteer associated with the green drives.
Wani, who was posted in Pir Panjal Forest range when the plantation was started, says that 95 percent timber smuggling was controlled after the sustained campaign for protecting forests and plantation drives were launched.
“Many timber smugglers, who would refuse to give up axing tress, were rehabilitated and some were jailed for two years under Public Safety Act,” he says.
Dr Rasool says a large number of smugglers were “rehabilitated” in Doodhpathri area as shopkeepers after the meadow was opened for tourists.
“Locals volunteered to become informers for Forest Protection Force about timber smugglers. This all was achieved after locals were involved and informed about forests and their importance,” he says.
Abdul Hameed, the businessman, says the efforts and energy of volunteers like Dr Shaikh Ghulam Rasool and his friends makes the plantation possible. “Their contribution to regaining lost forest cover in Kashmir can never be forgotten,’’ Bhat says.