Trees and Men Fall in Kashmir

Timber Smuggling threatens Kashmiri forests and the lives of those who protect them.

A young Kashmiri widow and her four children are grief stricken and wanting for justice in the death of husband, father and committed forest guard Sanaullah Zargar. A respected and admired family man in the Arizal area of Budgam district of Kashmir, Zargar was brutally murdered in the forest near his home on June 21.  Recent reports claim that area police have arrested 8 people – including a senior level Forest Department official and known timber smugglers – in connection with the murder.

Zargar worked as a forest guard in the Sukhnag Forest Range where deforestation has been increasing at an alarming rate in recent years.  Deforestation issues are not unique to the area however.  Throughout greater Kashmir, a construction boom has prompted a sharp incline in the black timber trade and subsequently, forest cover has been giving way to the increasing demand.  According to Dr Shaqil Rumshoo, an expert at Kashmir University, Srinagar, “the problem is both substantial and widespread. There are all sorts of different players.”

When Zargars lifeless body was found on the shores of a local river and police called it a drowning, his community cried murder and pointed fingers at both his colleagues and the local timber “mafia.” Many in the area have praised Zargar for his commitment to preserving the forests of Kashmir and believe that this resolve led to his death.

Local sources, reporting on comments made by a senior level police officer speaking on anonymity, have accused Forester Abdul Ghani War with contacting timber smugglers and asking them “to thrash Zargar and threaten him so that he [would not] disclose information to the higher-ups in the department regarding the smuggling in the area.” Further, the same sources claim that in the days before the murder, a team of officials visited Zargar to inquire about a local smuggling issue.

It was when Zargar led the team into the forest that he lost his life; leaving behind a devastated family, an enraged community and a forest under threat.

Kashmir is revered for its unparalleled beauty; spanning the snow peaked mountaintops to the lush floors of expansive valleys.  And the forests are as diverse as they are grand, hosting an astonishing variety of fauna and an eco-system supporting thousands of species of wildlife large and small.  Yet, beyond its wilderness, Kashmir is also well known for more than 25 years of insurgent violence.

In recent years, ebb in the violence has brought funding from the central government and in turn, an economic boom.  The economic upturn has created a significant demand for timber.  This demand has nurtured a black market and many in the region claim that Forest Department officials work in cahoots with timber smugglers in a massively corrupted and politically motivated money making scheme. Although laws aim to protect the forests, like many other regions in India, those laws are rarely enforced.

Sanaullah Zargar was committed to upholding forestry laws, and he paid with his life.  As police investigate his murder and reports of timber smuggling continue to emerge, his legacy burdens officials to reveal and answer for their complicity.

To express your concerns about deforestation and related corruption in Jammu & Kashmir, and to demand accountability from Forest Department officials, contact the Office of the Pr. Chief Conservator of Forests at 2455027 or 2483937.

Credits: www.guardian.co.uk; www.dailykashmirimages.com; www.greaterkashmir.com; www.kewa.org

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