Gulbaz Khan Afaqi is engaging communities in conservation efforts to halt deforestation, develop and use energy and water sources, and protect themselves and their forests from devastating forest fires.
The New Idea
Responding to the threat of deforestation, Afaqi is involving villagers in an effort to manage their forests and ensure sustainability of natural resources. His efforts rely on local people, initially as volunteer fire fighters in community brigades. Once they see that they can organize themselves to fight fires effectively, they join together in developing longer-term strategies to protect their environment. Afaqi links these community groups with each other and with a variety of other interested entities, including the Forest Department, private landowners, communities, and elected representatives. These groups pressure the Forest Department and private landowners to adopt policies and practices to protect the region's natural resources. By providing microcredit loans, Afaqi is also helping people switch to alternative fuel sources, a move that not only protects the forests but also is more cost-effective in the long run. Afaqi's idea is applicable to other areas facing similar environmental challenges.
Pakistan is facing immense problems resulting from deforestation and environmental degradation. To reverse the damage requires large-scale protection and management interventions in many watershed areas. In the 1970s and 1980s, Forest Department officials abused their role as custodians to profit from the plunder of forest resources, especially in the Punjab provinces. Moreover, few advances are underway in terms of legislative efforts to establish standards of business conduct in the forestry sector.
Pakistan's forests provide a source of domestic energy and raw material for wood-based industries. Yet they also serve a vital role in maintaining climate conditions, enhancing soil fertility, preventing erosion, and regulating water in rivers and canals. The scenic Valley of Soon is a site of international significance from an ecological point of view and is well known for its natural lakes. The World Wildlife Fund has acknowledged the importance of the area by recognizing it as a "Ramsar Site."
For half of each year, from April to October, fires pose a major threat to the forests of this region and the more than 300,000 people who live in them. In most instances the fires result from lightning or other natural occurrences, but occasionally, the woodcutters' mafia sets them–a practice that, while illegal, increases timber industry profits. The forest fires destroy homes, endanger lives, and disrupt wildlife migration patterns. While forest fires occur every year, the Forest Department is ill equipped to contain them, leaving communities vulnerable.
Afaqi is building the capacity of local organizations to manage forests by engaging communities around the issue of fire prevention and firefighting. To develop a community-based fire brigade, Afaqi first identifies two leaders from each village, who in turn train 30 volunteers. Because firefighting is dangerous and requires training and expertise, Afaqi initially consulted with a South African expert, using consultation fees from the United Nations Development Fund and Global Environment Fund. Afaqi's efforts thus far have resulted in a memorandum of understanding between the communities and the fire department to work together on surveillance and firefighting. Surveillance activities include assessment of wind direction, prohibition of smoking and cooking, and identification of wood-poachers involved in illegal felling, cutting, and smuggling in forested areas. Afaqi anticipates 300 fully trained, community-level fireguards in the valley to provide such services.
Afaqi teaches communities how to develop shallow ponds in watershed areas to collect and store about 25 percent of Soon Valley drainage water for livestock and fire prevention and fighting. Afaqi is also introducing cleaner fuel alternatives. Traditional fuel like firewood plays an important role in activities in the Soon Valley where over 65 percent of the population relies on firewood for their daily energy needs. Afaqi is introducing cleaner, cost-effective alternatives like natural gas. He has created a microcredit program, specifically for the purchase of natural gas cylinders and stoves. He started by investing 60,000 rupees that he received as award money from the World Wildlife Fund to provide a credit line to 30 borrowers at 2,000 rupees per borrower to purchase gas cylinders and compatible gas stoves. A 12-kilogram cylinder costs 260 rupees and lasts for approximately 20 days in an average household of seven persons, thus making it an alternative cheaper than firewood.
Because of the continual efforts of the Soon Valley Development program, community members have been able to take a significant step forward in the prevention of deforestation. These efforts also reduce the drudgery of firewood collection, traditionally one of women's daily chores. Moreover, firewood vendors are given soft loans to initiate alternative, more environment-friendly livelihoods.
In 1999 Afaqi, a journalist, resigned from his well-compensated post as an editor for a large daily newspaper to form the Soon Valley Development Program. He returned to the village he grew up in to engage it and surrounding communities in protecting the forests and preventing destruction from fires and logging, both legal and illegal. Afaqi lives in the Soon Valley with his wife and three young children.