The ringing echo of axes biting into living trees is fast being replaced by the screaming whine of chain saws which slice through living tissue like a knife through melting butter, therefore, it comes as no surprise whatsoever to learn that Pakistan has the highest annual deforestation rate in Asia. With a piddling forest cover of a miserable 2.5 percent and, according to a recently released World Wildlife Fund Pakistan report, a deforestation rate of 2.1 percent per annum, it won't be long until the sight of a single living tree, let alone an entire forest, is a very rare thing indeed. "What's that weird thing over there Mom?" a future child may very well ask but even his mother might not know the answer. "Well son/daughter, I'm not absolutely sure but, going from something your grandmother used to say, it might, only might, be something called a tree but I'm not positive because I haven't seen one before either." As far-fetched as this particular scenario may sound, if our Forest Department and 'feudal lords' continue to have their say in the matter, then our few remaining trees will continue to be felled at a far greater rate than new ones are planted. Government monsoon tree pla-nting campaigns are futile exercises which, having previously decried, I will ignore for the time being and point a finger towards the 'criminal' activity of some other segments of our uncivilised society. First and foremost is the Forest Department itself: A government body holding the remit of supposedly nurturing and otherwise caring for the countries' forests lands but whose officials, forest guards and the majority of minions holding posts in between these two levels, are, to a shockingly large degree it appears, open to closing their eyes to the predations of the timber mafia as long as the price is right. The latest case, that of a District Forest officer caught selling timber worth millions of rupees from a forest under his jurisdiction near Chak 324-JB, Paira in the Faisalabad area is just another incident to add to a long list of similar offences repeatedly occurring thr-oughout the length and breadth of our over-exploited, thoughtlessly raped country. True, members of the Forest Department are mostly ridiculously lowly paid but stealing the very trees whose life they are supposed to protect is quite beyond the pale. This particular department has been degenerating, rapidly one must point out, ever since its inception and it is high time the entire kit and caboodle was seriously revamped including, this is sad to say, the machinations of Forest Universities from where an unfortunate percentage of students qualify when they definitely have not made the grade. There are, however, students who do pass their exams with flying colours and who do have a genuine interest and aptitude for their chosen career yet, as a direct result of their basic honesty, often fail to work their way into the upper echelons of a termite ridden department. It is also, unfortunately, true to say that well intentioned Forest Department officials, there are still a few around, are powerless to safeguard their turf when 'stronger' government departments and corrupt politicians decide to elbow them aside in greedy pursuit of monetary gains. There were approximately 4.242 million hectares of forest land in the country 18 years ago, nine years later this was down to 3.44 million hectares and now, another nine years down the line even this figure has drastically shrunk. The trend of converting forest land for non-forest use is spreading at the speed of light with assorted government departments, the armed forces, commercial organisations and some prominent civilians reaping massive financial benefit in the process and pushing the official Millennium Development Goal of achieving six percent forest cover by 2015 completely out of reach. Added to this insanity which, let's face it, deprives millions of people of the basic human right of clean air to breathe plus, speeds up catastrophic climate change, is the corresponding massacre of privately owned forests. A prime example of the latter occurred just two weeks ago in the Thar region when a local landlord felled a reported 8,500 trees from his land near Umerkot where encroaching desertification is a major problem threatening the very existence of the indigenous population. Local people claim that the felling of these trees, from which they harvested fodder and wild honey amongst other things, was illegal and will weaken the banks of precious water channels along with adversely affecting local biodiversity and temperatures. The case is currently being investigated but, whatever the outcome, the trees have already been cleared. Unless and until all levels and departments of government, large-scale landowners and private individuals owning relatively small parcels of land, are 'forced' to take the issue of preserving and planting trees seriously, preferably on an emergency basis, the viable susta-inability of life, as we currently know it, will very quickly reach an uncomfortable end. The writer is a Murree-based freelance columnist.