Of all the nonsensical things to happen There, at the side of the road up near Nathia Gali, stood a bedraggled collection of local women with bundles of firewood on their heads and axes in hand being berated, quite literally, by three young city girls giving them absolute hell for causing environmental degradation. The women, exhausted as they were after a long days toil gathering fuel for cooking, politely stood there round eyed and open mouthed as they received a lecture on global warming, deforestation and the need to switch over to solar cookers, solar lightening and solar heating. They hadnt got a clue why these strange females, dressed in skin-tight jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps had launched in to them like this and did not have the faintest idea what they were talking about either. As the lecture drifted over their heads, they kept their eyes firmly fixed on the distant horizon, patiently waiting for a gap in the verbal torrent that would allow them to escape and, when it finally materialised, off they went to giggle over the weird event in private. Well intentioned as they undoubtedly were, the city girls taking a break in the hills, should, if they had stopped to think, have realised that this is absolutely the wrong way to go about trying to save trees. Verbally whiplashing largely uneducated rural women as they go about the hard grind of their daily business being no way to win friends and influence people plus, it would perhaps have helped some if the girls really understood what they were talking about which, unfortunately, is as ill afflicting as high percentage of supposed environmentalists. People surviving on or below the poverty line make up an incredibly high percentage of the population and, in this particular instance, the women routinely collect fuel wood as they cannot afford any other method of cooking and heating their humble homes. They are allowed, by law, to gather fallen branches, dead wood and to lop the side branches off living pine trees up to a certain height. This lopping of the branches actually assists in maintaining a measure of biodiversity in otherwise dense forests by opening up the darkness to let sunlight filter through thus encouraging undergrowth to flourish. This undergrowth of shrubs, sub-shrubs, herbs and grasses is essential for environmental health: It provides forage for animals, pollen for bees, fruit and seeds for birds and animals and keeps insect life in balance. Forests, particularly overcrowded, man-made forests, require a level of maintenance which, unfortunately, the Forest Department cannot supply but which rural women do to a certain extent by cleaning up dead wood and cutting fodder for their livestock. If dead wood is not collected and undergrowth not cut back, then incidents of uncontrollable forest fire are liable to increase. Rural communities, in the Nathia Gali area at least, are quietly and politely encouraged to respect nature and not to over harvest any one species of plant by organisations such as WWFP to name but one and, instead of screaming blue murder about the use of firewood, they actively introduced more efficient wood burning stoves than were locally available thus killing two birds with one stone: p Less fuel required for cooking, which automatically means less wood gathered. p This benefits the women, who then do not have to spend as much time and energy in gathering fuel, so can do something else with their time. It is not viable to even attempt to convince rural women to alter their lifestyles, unless you can offer them an easier, lower cost, alternative and, for the foreseeable future at least, solar cooking and power are not economically viable options. Those promoting solar power are either wealthy people, who can afford to play around or have a financial interest in its manufacture and distribution. Solar power is, generally speaking, very expensive plus, in mountainous regions of the country, is not always as efficient as it is purported to be as the sun may not show its face for days on end. Solar cookers are a point to ponder indeed as, in at least 99 percent of cases, those who push them down other peoples throats most certainly do not use them themselves, relying instead on the far more convenient flick of a switch, microwave oven or the services of the household cook. If we are seriously going to work towards safeguarding what is left of the environment in this overexploited country, whilst also struggling to regenerate biodiversity where possible then, first and foremost environmentalists must be fully cognisant of what they are trying to do and of how their ideas and intentions fit in with the localised rural customs and culture. When it comes to environmental issues, people must first get real before they can get ahead. n The writer is a Murree-based freelance columnist.