Deep in the forest the silence is broken only by the chirping of birds and the sound of water gurgling in a water channel nearby. It is difficult to believe one is standing just off the Sukkur-Karachi Highway; the silence of man is absolute, but the forest resounds loud.
Once a natural riverine forest and a game reserve for the former rulers of Sindh, Pai Forest was cut off from its water source when a flood protection embankment was built along the river bank during the British Raj. Pai is now an irrigated forest, watered by the Rahib Shah Minor Canal, an offshoot of the Rohri Canal.
Spread over some 4777 acres and surrounded by cultivated fields, Pai Forest supports a flourishing ecosystem. Tree species, such as the babul, kikar and kandi common to Sind’s riverine forests flourish here. While these species are indigenous to Pai, other species introduced to the Forest, shisham and eucalyptus have done well too. Introduced in 1960-1961, shisham trees today cover roughly 12 hectares, or 0.6 per cent of forest land.
The forest is also home to many animals including the endangered hog deer. Once found extensively in these parts, forest officials put the number of hog deer in the forest as somewhere in between 40 to 50. This figure is however challenged by Amyn Keryo, head of Sindhica, one of the CBOs working to revive Pai Forest. According to him there are no more than 14 hog deer in the forest.
Other than its importance as an ecological unit Pai Forest is a life support system for 21 villages situated on its periphery. Most of the people living around the Forest are poor and marginalized. Their main sources of livelihood are agriculture, forestry and fisheries and thus they are dependent upon the natural products of the forest to meet their daily requirement of food, fuel wood and earnings.
Unfortunately this rich ecosystem is under enormous pressure due to a number of factors the most pernicious of these being a chronic water shortage. Added to near drought-like conditions that have parched the Forest in recent years, Pai also faces serious threats of extinction due to encroachments by land grabbers and wood cutting by the local inhabitants.
Recognizing the importance of conserving and rejuvenating this very essential eco system, Indus for All Programme in partnership with the Sindh Forest Department agreed on a program for the rehabilitation and restoration of the internal irrigation system of Pai Forest and habitat conservation of the same. At the same time the Programme hoped to educate the local communities and raise awareness about the importance of preserving this immensely important eco resource.
Irrigated by the Rahib Shah Minor Canal, its three distributaries and a number of tube wells, Pai Forest is sanctioned 30 cusecs of water per month. The reality however is, that being at the tail end of the irrigation system, the Rahib Shah Minor is perennially short of water. According to a local estimate the canal probably gets 25 percent of its allocated share per month. Compounding the problem of the low flow of water is the fact that farmers steal water from the canal and its channels without any check or fear of being caught.
Neither the Sindh government nor the local VIPs are free of guilt as far as encroachments and hunting go.
Over the years some 500 acres of land has been denuded of trees and the land cleared for agriculture. Closely tied to deforestation is the lucrative lumber trade controlled by the lumber mafia. The trees are cut at night and smuggled out in trucks. Bachal Shah, a forest officer, speaks of the Herculean task of policing 4000 plus acres of forested land with only six guards. A plan to build a fence around the forest never materialized.
The local villagers add to the problem of deforestation, says Bachal Shah, by cutting forest wood for fuel-wood. Plus, grazing cattle destroy ground cover and newly planted saplings.
Unlike the past when villagers were mainly herders living off their livestock most have now turned to farming with the emphasis on growing cash crops like cotton, wheat, and sugarcane. This change has apparently put enormous pressure on the forest as local communities collude in encroachments as they see forest land as better utilized for cultivation.
Only time will tell if this forest can be saved through conservation and awareness programs. — Text by Y.Qureshi, Video by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com