The longed for arrival of spring has softened the atmosphere in the Galiat region of the country and, hard on the heels of a bitterly cold, snow-bound winter, the beauty of almond, apricot and plum blossom is balm for the soul and a promise of luscious fruit to come…….providing that is, weather conditions are conducive over the weeks and months to come. For someone familiar with the area though, this breath-taking sight of magical proportions is somewhat spoiled, this happens each and every single year, by the harsh fact that this year there are even less fruit trees than last year and that if the situation is not brought under control, pretty soon fruit trees and the bounty they produce, will become, like so many other natural environmental aspects of this over exploited area, a thing of memory only.

Fruit trees in the form of apple, apricot, plum and pears, were, according to local sources, introduced into this climatically suitable area, back in the early 1960s by an unusually sensible District Commissioner, who personally encouraged the local population to plant fruit trees on their largely neglected land and, again, according to local sources, he physically went out and ‘forced’ people to plant the fruit trees he so generously provided.

These trees have, over the 50 years since they were planted, helped ensure that the local population can feast on fresh fruit for months on end if they so desire, or, if possible, earn some extra cash from selling home-grown fruit to whoever wants to buy it - this is usually the middlemen who pay little to the actual growers, but make a fine profit for themselves when selling it on to the market for onward distribution. However, over the last 20 years, maybe a little longer, fruit trees are regularly being cut down and burnt as winter fuel and, worse still, no replanting is taking place on any noticeable scale.

The trees are being cut down for a number of reasons: Land is increasingly being sold off for the construction of out-of-place and often downright dangerous apartment blocks, the trees, being uncared for, are past their prime and some are suffering from disease, plus, firewood is increasingly expensive and thus buying it is way beyond the reach of ordinary people who, especially during winters such as the dreadful one just experienced, need a sizeable amount of fuel to keep themselves warm and trees closest to the house are the most convenient ones to use.

This criminal destruction of a valuable food source is already coming home to roost, as a high percentage of the population now find that purchasing fruit in the bazaar is quite beyond their budgetary means and, as a direct result of an increasingly unbalanced diet, incidences of otherwise avoidable illnesses are on the rise and, therefore, money not spent on buying fruit is used up on paying the doctors’ fees and for the medicines prescribed. The short-sightedness of adults is thus paid for by children suffering from vitamin deficiencies and other associated problems, which, in some instances, can actually be detrimental for life and yet no one seems to really care that they have brought this curse down upon themselves. Even suggesting that they begin caring for any remaining trees, plus, plant lots of news ones, is met with blank looks if not downright refusal and disbelief that such an idea should even be considered. Their argument in support of felling living fruit trees is that “they don’t give much fruit”, “the fruit is not good”, the trees “are in the way” or some other such rubbish when, if pruned and fed, many, not all, of the trees can still be brought back into full production and provide not only seasonal fruit, but also be a source of dried fruit, jams, chutneys and other healthy preserves which, value added as they are, are yet another potential source of income but, as usual in this neck of the woods, anything which requires effort - in the form of actual work - is thoroughly scowled upon and dismissed.

This ‘criminal’ situation is not just reserved for fruit trees, but also for at least 95 percent, maybe as much as 99 percent, of arable land in the area too: Terraces, constructed by the hard working Sikhs, who were indigenous to the hills prior to partition, are neglected and falling down, the soil held in place by handcrafted retaining walls now supporting nothing but tough grasses and shrubs containing very little animal nutrition for the rapidly dwindling flocks of goats that graze them from time to time - the keeping of livestock is also becoming a lost art as this, too, needs physical effort and the cultivation of crops is all but none existent now as people have more important ways to spend their time…….watching Indian soaps on television being a prime example of this!

This complete wastage of arable land, in a country where approximately 80 to 90 million people, out of a population currently estimated at around 180 million, are malnourished is a shocking example of how lazy, ignorant and downright selfish people have become. The ownership of arable land and lack of the very same commodity has resulted in countless wars down through the centuries as, without properly worked arable land no nation can survive for very long; it would be fair to point out that lack of food security results in wars - be these civil wars amongst members of a hungry population or wars in which ‘weak’ countries are overrun by those with stronger economies and healthier inhabitants.

With the above in mind, and in the hope of encouraging the kind of lasting peace the country needs in order to survive, it would make sense for the relevant government departments, to ‘instruct’ landowners throughout Pakistan, to produce food…….or else!

n    The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

    Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com