Zofeen T. Ibrahim
On July 2, the government announced an ambitious ‘Protected Area Initiative’, notifying 15 national parks which will not only have proper management plans but also provide 5,000 jobs to the local community.
This initiative to tackle post-Covid-19 unemployment fits perfectly well with the ruling PTI’s vision of protecting nature and fighting climate change.
However, those already employed in existing protected areas are being treated in a callous way.
Take the example of 30-year-old forest watchman, Sanaullah (who goes by his first name). He has not been paid his salary for the last one year.
Sanaullah is among the 11 community watchmen (there were 28 till last year, but 16 of them were sacked because there was not enough money and remain unemployed to date) who continue to provide support to the 22 government-appointed watchmen to keep an eye so that no “illegal activity takes place inside the park”.
“Collecting firewood, irresponsible camping by tourists that can lead to fire, tree felling and hunting” are some of the illegal activities, explained Naimatullah Khan, the divisional forest officer (DFO) of the Wildlife Department, which these guardians keep from happening.
At 1,450-5,000 metres above sea level, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Chitral district, this 77.5 square kilometres (7,750 hectares) wooded area was declared a protected park in 1984.
It is among the 398 notified protected areas, of which 31 are national parks, 92 wildlife sanctuaries, 97 game reserves, 19 wetland reserves and 160 community reserves.
“Community involvement is an essential element of the model that was developed to manage and protect this park,” said DFO Khan. “It is because of these community watchers that our task has been made so much easier, as there is less burden on our watchmen, the place being so spread out,” he acknowledged.
“It is unfortunate that these people have been treated so unfairly,” he admitted. “I have been continuously writing to my superiors. I don’t know why the money is not being released,” he said.
It is called the Fund for Protected Area (FPA) and managed by the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC) for distribution equally among three national parks, namely the CG, Hingol in Balochistan, and Machiara, in Azad Kashmir.
“Apart from the salaries, the surrounding villages get funds to be used for their own betterment and on their discretion to be used they think best,” said Khan.
“I hold the board culpable for this injustice meted out to these poor people,” said Mumtaz Malik, chairman of the board managing the funds.
He was optimistic the issue would be resolved by the end of next month.
Dr Malik is a former chief conservator and founder of the KP Wildlife Department. Being a founding member of the FPA, he said there were important lessons to be learnt from it. These may turn out to be useful in managing the newly notified 15 national parks.
Due to some “serious irregularities” identified in disbursement of the endowment fund, the payment was stalled, admitted Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam.
“However, in the light of our current focus on protected areas, the MoCC is now trying to get these [funds] released while an audit can go on in parallel,” he said.