Forest Gone

27 October 2021:        The UN report that current action on CO2 emissions will set the world on course for a disastrous 2.70C temperature rise by 2030.

In 2005 I went to Pakistan's North-West Frontier to write about girls education, a hugely contentious issue in the region. My hosts were Khwendo Kor, a courageous Pakistani NGO who were building and running girls' schools. It was during this assignment that I came across the story of the forest that vanished.

The road up to the school soon lost its tarmac, then became a rough track, winding through a deep barren canyon devoid of any vegetation. Out of the open window I peered up and saw serrated edges of ridges and rills, their steep sides torn into corrugations by rain, like the stony drapes for some austere theatrical production. There was barely a single plant to be seen. All was grey, brown and black. Clouds of dust followed us, and occasionally caught up, billowing through the open windows.

We had left Bannu early that morning after a meeting with village elders. The town sits close to the tribal territories that border with Afghanistan to the south of the Khyber Pass. "No one cares about us," complained one bearded elder, "If a bomb goes off in Waziristan, the world doesn't hear about it, but if a bomb goes off in Britain everyone knows." The assembled men nodded sagely. One of them muttered, "It was better when the Taliban were here."

Bannu has ancient provenance: the name is mentioned in the sacred texts of the Zoroastrians and legend says Alexander the Great passed through the area en route to Afghanistan. The modern town was founded by the British Raj in 1848 as a military base from where they could periodically attempt to subdue the Pashtun tribes. By 2005 when I visited, Osama bin Ladin was thought to be in hiding somewhere nearby. (He was. US special forces eventually killed him in 2011 about a day's drive away.)

Now we were heading up to see a girls' school at Kando Khel, a remote village somewhere in the barren lands to the east. With us was a young woman who had been badly injured in a Taliban assassination attempt. Her crime had been teaching girls. After the attack a local newspaper printed her name, an exposure that brought shame on the family so they disowned her.

On the road we passed a few mud houses, sometimes with a tower, always with tiny windows just large enough to poke a rifle barrel through. Eventually the track became no more than a rough stony scrape and headed up one of those ridges to a group of buildings close to a high knoll. There we pulled up and were greeted by a reception committee of villagers, all either very old or very young. I wondered where the people of working age might be.

The school was a single-roomed block house, standing slightly apart from the village. The floor was beaten earth and the roof made from rushes. The dignified elderly village headman, Wali Muhammad Khan, spoke about how important education was to the community, how much they wanted their girls to read and write. Around me the villagers nodded in agreement. "A good mother should be able to read," said one. Another added, "But if the husband can read, that's enough."

"We need female doctors," said another man, "It is wrong for a male doctor to examine a female patient."

On the wall was a poster with the English alphabet: Apple, Boy, Cat, Duck, Elephant...'. It seemed unlikely that any of the assembled children had ever seen most of the items. A ten-year-old girl, obviously carefully prepared, stood to tell us how much she liked school. "We learn good manners, respect for elders and how to say hello." Her ambition was to become a teacher.

Afterwards we walked back to the village and drank tea on a dusty verandah, looking out at the desertified wasteland that surrounded the place. There was no shop or electricity, but plenty of Kalashnikovs.

"Why," I asked the headman, "do you live here?" I didn't mean to be rude, but the awful scorched land seemed to offer no means of support.

He nodded and touched my arm. "Come with me."

Leading me up the ridge, we came to the highest point where we could see how extensive this desert really was. "Look over there," he said, pointing east. "Can you see it?"

It was the middle of the day when a heat haze shimmered above the stacked ranges of barren hills, but far away on the horizon I could see something different: a glimmer of silver.

"That is the Indus River," he said, "When I was a boy, we would walk there and sometimes see tigers drinking. In the forest there were lakhs and lakhs of birds, big herds of deer, and wolves too."

I was confused. "You mean there is a forest over there?"

He gave a wry smile. "No. I mean we would walk through forest, all the way to the Indus."

There was a pause while I digested this.

Back on the verandah the story came out. When the old man was young, the village had been a delightful place to live, surrounded by a thick forest that provided many things. The only drawback was that their sole cash crop was opium. They didn't grow much, just a few small fields, but it was enough to bring disaster down. "In the mid-1960s the Pakistan Army, paid by the Americans, came here and sprayed everything with chemicals. They killed all the poppies and we were forbidden to grow them again."

With the sole source of money gone, people began to fell the trees, taking the timber down to Bannu and other towns. For a while that succeeded. They had cash. But as the circle of deforestation spread outwards, they also began to experience terrible erosion of the land. The thin top soil that covered the ridges and hills was ripped away, leaving barren gravel and rock. It took only a few years before there was no more wood to cut, and no soil either. Then the men had to go into the cities and find work, sending money home. The families they left behind were totally dependent on them.

He himself had joined the Pakistan Army, serving for 32 years, but many had gone to work on the Karakoram Highway to China. "It was very hard and dangerous work and some men died."

When the highway was completed, the work stopped. The men discovered that jobs in the cities were much harder to find than before. A few became lorry drivers and some went to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, but in the early 1980s a new way to get cash opened up: groups of fighters, the mujahideen, started fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, some of them funded by the CIA. (It is worth noting that the spark that ignited the war was an uprising against girls education programmes in Herat.) By the time that war ended they had become hardened fighters with severe religious views who soon found new jobs with a grassroots Islamicist organisation from Kandahar, the Taliban.

"So the grandsons of the men whose poppy fields were destroyed in the 1960s, the men who chopped down the forest, they are now fighting the Americans?"

The headman nodded and played with his prayer beads. "Life is strange and terrible, is it not?"

That night we had to change our plans. A mob of 300 men had stoned the government resthouse in Karak, our planned sleeping place. We drove away and bedded down in an office in the centre of town. Next day, I was shown a small area of woodland, around six acres that has been planted with acacia and rosewood. It looked neglected, but it was the only reforestation attempt that we saw.