Rise in wildfire incidents after NAB’s letters to commissioners

Arshad Aziz Malik
Thursday, Jun 23, 2022

PESHAWAR: It might be a coincidence that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakhtunkhwa, issued letters to commissioners of three divisions for an investigation into the Billion Tree Tsunami project scam and fire incidents started in the province. In the letters, the NAB directed the commissioners to form district-level verification committees with inclusion of revenue field staff and local police formations led by deputy commissioners concerned to complete the investigation in a coherent manner.

The anti-graft agency has been investigating misuse of authority, embezzlement and corrupt practices in farm forestry and private nurseries in the execution of Billion Tree Tsunami project since March 2018. The NAB, however, has not shown any tangible progress in the investigation.

A Forest Department spokesman said the NAB's letters had nothing to do with the forest fires. He said the fires had affected only 0.08pc of two Billion Tree Tsunami projects. The Ten Billion Tree project plants were small ones that were affected only, not completely burnt. He confirmed incidents of fire in privately owned forests were higher in number than in the public forests.

According to the letters available with this scribe, NAB KP sent letters to the commissioners of Malakand, Hazara and Mardan divisions on April, 4, 5 and 20 respectively. The letters said, “This bureau is conducting investigation under the provisions of National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999. The Billion Trees Afforestation Project (BTAP) has been executed by Environment, Forest & Wildlife Department in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the three forest regions comprising 28 forest divisions, including 86 forest sub-divisions across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, during 2014-2021”.

The letter said the Central Southern (Forest Region – I) consisted of five forest divisions, including Peshawar, Mardan, Kohat, Bannu and DI Khan. Northern (Forest Region – II) consisted of 14 forest divisions namely Haripur, Gallis, Kaghan, Agror Tanawal, Hazara Tribal, Siren, Tor Ghar, Kunhar, Unhar, Upper Kohistan, Buner, Daur, Lower Kohistan and Bisham. Malakand (Forest Region – Ill) consisted of nine forest divisions, including Dir Lower, Dir Upper, Kalam, Swat, Malakand, Alpuri, Buner, Dir Kohistan and Chitral.

The letters said the proceedings conducted revealed plantation sites executed in each of the above forest divisions were multiple in number, including block & waterlogged plantations, woodlots, enclosures, linear plantations, farm forestry, private nurseries along with procurement of various items where most of the sites were located in far-flung hilly terrains and remote areas across the province.

Moreover, a bulky/voluminous record was involved with respect to each of the activities executed in the identified forest regions. The investigations teams, including forest experts, had been scrutinising the bulky/voluminous record and were involved with the verification of the plantation sites, beneficiaries of plants, private nurseries and procurement of items.

Furthermore, extensive field visits to a large number of difficult (hard terrain/extreme weather conditions) and vastly scattered plantation sites, recording statements of hundreds of witnesses, the association of large number of accused persons and their confrontation with the record was a time-consuming job.

The whole exercise requires extensive time and resources for its effective accomplishment. The time taken by NAB KP in completing the proceedings of BTAP inquiries/investigations is being closely monitored by the authorities concerned.

“The verification committees may be asked to locate, associate and examine the already identified beneficiaries of farm forestry. Also, find the specimen proforma which may be filled by the association of the identified beneficiaries to cross-verify their identities and obtain their versions regarding acknowledgement or refusal with respect to receiving plants from the Forest Department under the farm forestry regime of the BTAP project”. The verification committees might further be directed to submit their reports at the earliest, the letter said.

It is pertinent to mention here that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa official documents confirmed that fire incidents had affected some 488 hectares area of Billion Tree Tsunami and Ten Billion Tree Tsunami projects in the province. An area of around 17,095 acres had been destroyed by the wildfires. From May 1, 2022 to June 7, more than 454 incidents of forest blazes were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.