In the picturesque Grace Valley of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the coming winter will be a concerning time for Umar Hussain. A 60-year-old resident of this remote location in the region’s northernmost Neelum district, Hussain has seen heavy snowfall that engulfs the land in blankets two metres deep. With low access to electricity, many turn to felling trees to keep warm and cook. A recent study found that 90% of homes used firewood at least partially for cooking, while over 75% of homes used woody materials, including firewood and brushwood, as their primary energy source for cooking.
Grace Valley is a popular tourist destination renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, but the verdant forests are gradually thinning out. Satellite imagery cited in a 2022 report indicates that from 2000 to 2020, Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s forest cover has decreased from 45.9% to 39.3%, or 6,103km2 to 5,226km2. Furthermore, this decrease has accelerated, dropping from 45.9% to 45% between 2000 and 2005, then down to 42% by 2010. This timing coincides with the massive 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the reconstruction that followed. The rate of deforestation has since slowed, but it is still of major concern.
Firewood and smuggling
Approximately 42% of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which has a total land area of 13,297km2, is under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department. But this is an area under increasing pressure from the people who live nearby.
Speaking to The Third Pole, Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s forests minister, Akmal Sargala, says 68% of the region’s forests are found in Neelum, where “42,000 families are settled”, each burning “two trees annually for cooking and heating”.
Timber smuggling is another major cause of deforestation in the region. The conservator forest for Kashmir – the leading administrative official in charge of forest cover – is Mir Naseer, who tells The Third Pole: “Cedar wood, which is sold at 10,000 Pakistani rupees [USD 33] per cubic foot, is a popular target for smugglers. The forest department has seized smuggling timber worth millions of rupees during the last year.”
To tackle this problem, a group of young people formed the Protection Forest Committee. While Raja Raffakat, a 28-year-old member of the committee, says they were successful in foiling smugglers, it was difficult to stop locals. Another committee member – who wished to remain anonymous – says: “The biggest reason for the damage to our forests is that we use them as fuelwood. If we don’t use it as fuel, our lives will come to an end, and we can’t stay in this area.”
Much of this is because of population pressures, and the lack of energy infrastructure. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the population of Pakistan-administered Kashmir more than doubled between 1981 and 2017, rising from just under two million to more than four million.
Muhammad Rafique Khan, who directs climate change policy at the Azad Jammu Kashmir Environmental Protection Agency (EPAAJK), tells The Third Pole: “Due to this increase in population, our forests have decreased … According to the State of Environment report, only 9.6% of our dense forests remain, while sparse forests make up 11.4%.”
Rising temperatures and water stress
According to the 2022 report mapping forest cover loss in Kashmir, “The decrease in forest cover may reduce [the] amount of precipitation and change the spatial pattern of rainfall.”
EPAAJK’s State of the Environment 2018 report states that the average maximum temperature in Pakistan-administered Kashmir increased from 25C to 27C between 1962 and 2013. Khan says this is partly due to deforestation, adding: “This is a significant increase, and if this trend continues until the end of 2100, there is a fear of a further 3C increase. Such an increase would have severe consequences.”
Consequences for women
Deforestation in Pakistan-administered Kashmir not only impacts the environment, but also significantly affects the lives of women in the region.
Shazia Latif Kayani, a local human rights advocate, tells The Third Pole that women are the primary gatherers of firewood, both for cooking and heating. As forest cover declines, these women are forced to travel further to gather firewood, which puts them at risk of violence and exploitation. “Moreover, the time spent collecting firewood means that women have less time to devote to other activities such as education, income-generating activities, and caring for their families,” adds Kayani.
Human-wildlife conflicts multiplying
Another consequence of removing trees here is the shrinking of animal habitats. Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s wildlife department says human-wildlife conflict has increased in the region in recent years.
“Alarmingly, in just the last four years [2019-2022], 21 common leopards were killed by local communities, indicating a worrying [upward] trend,” says Shaista Ali, a wildlife department monitoring officer. Between 2014 and 2022, more than 300 livestock were killed by leopards. In addition, leopard attacks caused five human fatalities and seven injuries in the region.
No alternative energy sources
Kashmir’s conservator forest Naseer says that a simple solution to the pressures on the forest would be if the people had alternative sources of energy, or even alternative sources of wood for their heating and cooking needs. Sargala, the forest minister, agrees.
“People resort to illegally cutting down forests to protect themselves from the cold; this has been happening for the past 73 years,” says Sargala. “I want to make it clear that if we do not provide low-cost electricity, such as through alternative fuel sources or kerosene, our forests will disappear within the next 20 to 30 years.”