Abdullah sits roasting green, salt-covered corn over an open fire. Though he is only fifteen, he runs a small cabin for tourists visiting Swat. All around are steep, thickly wooded slopes and opposite a huge mound of rubble – all that remains of the once-grand PTDC Hotel, destroyed by militants during the recent fighting.
When questioned about illegal logging in Swat, Abdullah shrugged and gestured at his small fire. “It is our right to use the wood for our needs.”
But it is not boys and cook fires that threaten Swat’s magnificent pine forests. The militants ousted from Swat by the Pakistani army in 2009 were the first to exploit the trade in illegal timber in order to help fund their insurgency. Since then the lucrative trade has been taken over by a shadowy mafia of influential men and poor locals eager for extra cash.
“In the past the militants were involved in the illegal logging,” says Khalil ur Rehman, a local resident, “but not any more.”
Swat is now heavily occupied by the Pakistani military. There have been no recent attacks and most of the two million people displaced by the fighting have returned. Even so, the military is taking no chances. Roads are dotted with checkpoints and, frequently while travelling round, I was forced to step out of the bus and wait with other non-locals for my identity to be checked and double-checked.
“The forest is like a treasure to us,” says Khalil ur Rehman. “but we are helpless to protect it. The mafia members involved in the illegal logging are strong and backed by big fish.”
This is a common sentiment among the people of Swat.
“What you and other people see and blame are the ordinary men,” says a local from Malam Jabba, a district of Swat, on condition of anonymity. “No one tries to find the big fish or, in case they are known, nobody has the power to touch them,” he added, also claiming that a senior politician and his family are heavily involved in the smuggling.
“The illegal logging would be impossible without the involvement of locals. The locals involved are of two kinds: firstly, the poor people who are paid very little to cut the trees and drag them to the roadside; secondly, the local elite who bribe government officials and arrange the transportation – these people earn a huge amount.”
Some believe that corrupt officials were involved in the trade even during the time it was controlled by militants.
“Yes, the militants had a role in cutting and selling the lumber,” says Said Alam, the owner of a small hotel in Malam Jabber. “My question is this: how did these trees pass through dozens of security checkpoints on their way to being sold in Hazara, Peshawar, and other parts of the country? Still,” he adds, “when the militants had hold of the valley there was no one to stop them chopping down the trees. At least now the army is in control the smuggling has died down.”
At first glance, one might well believe he is right. Swat, famed for its natural beauty and cool climate, is covered everywhere in dense forest. However, closer examination revealed evidence illegal throughout the valley, particularly in remote areas.
Moving up the steep hills of Malam Jabber, deeper into the forest, we heard the sound of chainsaws and saw the fresh green stumps of recently felled trees. Rather than clear an entire area, the loggers thin the forest to make their activities less obvious. From a distance the effect is hard to see.
At one point we caught sight of three men hauling a trunk down a hill. When they saw us trying to photograph them, they became angry and ordered us to stop.
From Malam Jabber we travelled more than 30km along a rough road to Bahrain. The story was the same: large numbers of trees carefully cut from the hillsides. As the light began to face we saw two trucks loaded with freshly cut tree trunks driving toward Mingora, the capital of Swat.
“Transporting the trees is mostly done under cover of darkness,” says Bilal Chitrali, a local journalist based in Mingora. “In some parts of Swat the river can be used to float the trunks downstream for collection, but in most places it is too shallow or obstructed by heavy stones. I have even seen people involved in this business sacrificing animals in order to make the rain come and the river rise.”