The first sprinkling of snow lays glittering blue-white on the heights of the Pir Panjal mountains across the Jhelum Valley in Azad Kashmir and night time temperatures are dropping rapidly now that winter is in the offing.

Crisp autumn sunshine is the order of the day although this could change at any time: the leaves of deciduous trees have begun their green to yellow, orange and red transformation, migratory birds are on the move as are the Gujjar nomads walking, with their herds of ponies, sheep and goats, down from the high mountain pastures where they spend their summers to the warmth of the plains for the winter and, throughout the Galiat, summer residents have begun leaving too.

This seasonal change is, on all fronts, a stirring time: one in which those of us who are year round residents, luxuriate in the fast fading warmth of sunshine, begin thinking of stocking up for the bitter weather and snow ahead and one, unfortunately, during which the echoing thud of sharp axe biting into live tree is increasingly common.

It being against the law to fell pine trees, but not to fell other species, people steal pine trees from the forest under cover of darkness and fell other species during the day without, or so it appears, any thought at all of what will happen when all the deciduous trees have been cut and burnt. Replanting for future trees and firewood is not on anyone’s agenda even though, over the last three years or so, timber merchants have paid local landowners some fairly hefty sums in return for mature poplar and other straight trunked trees. Yet, despite potential future financial benefits, planting saplings is just not on anyone’s agenda which, given the prevailing economic circumstances, is impossible to justify.

Planning for the future has never been a Pakistani trait, but one would expect mountain people to realise that endlessly cutting down trees without planting any more just cannot go on. But, ridiculously, they seem to be under the impression that some kind of miracle will cause replacement trees to pop up, fully mature, overnight and that life will go on as always when, quite obviously, this is simply not the case.

Educating people about the use of fuel efficient wood burning stoves, as the World Wildlife Fund Pakistan has done, is of no help either because trees still need to be cut to fuel them and environmentalists yelling at people to switch over to using gas for cooking and heating have no idea of the logistics or unaffordable cost this actively means: the cost of a gas cylinder always shoots sky high during the winter months and is already at Rs 1,550 at time of writing and will soar further as temperatures drop. Plus, there is always a shortage, induced one suspects by profiteers, during January and February when temperatures are at their lowest. Once the snow falls, it is also impossible to reach a bazaar to have gas cylinders refilled, if gas is available of course, and few households can afford to have more than a single, very occasionally two, gas cylinders in stock.

Piped gas has yet to reach much of the area, electricity is both expensive and completely unreliable and, if snow falls are heavy, power supplies can be cut for long periods of time. Firewood is, therefore, the only sensible option at the moment although, in the long-term, it is to be hoped that some form of sustainable alternative energy is introduced at an acceptable rate.

Until this happens though trees will continue to disappear far faster than they can possibly regenerate themselves without, that is, a major education and plantation campaign being undertaken throughout the area on what should be, an emergency basis.

This is not a difficult proposition at all and could quite easily be implemented by the Forestry Department that could, in conjunction with local authorities and educational institutions, impart both adult and child education in this respect: teaching them about environmental sustainability, climate change issues and alternative energy sources at the same time.

Encouraging community involvement in saving our precious forests, there are actually very few left now, is an excellent way to move forwards as has been proven in some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northern areas and Balochistan where involving local people in forest and wildlife protection schemes has really paid off. The same models, tailored to fit in with local laws and customs, of course, could, if introduced, go a long way towards saving what remains of forest cover in the scenic Galiat region where, despite what some visitors may think, trees are becoming an endangered species as are countless species of wild animals, birds, butterflies and indigenous plants.

It is pointless just imparting knowledge of environmental sustainability to school children as, important as this is, children are highly unlikely to be in a position to make their parents understand just how crucial saving our environment, in all of its many shapes and forms, really is and, come a bitterly cold winter night when temperatures are way below zero and warmth is a must for survival, sneaking out and cutting down another tree is, regrettably, viewed as the only sensible thing to do.

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

Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com