CHUNIAN - Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, at last, awoke to the rapid deforestation and destruction of more than 60 pc of the World’s largest manmade forest by the timber mafia at Changa Manga. Taking notice of the situation, Shahbaz Sharif ordered the removal of Chief Conservator (Forest) Dr Mehboobur Rehman and Conservator (Forest) Rao Khalid from their posts and making them OSD.

It is to be noted that the Conservator Forest, who has been removed from his seat, is the brother-in-law of Rana Muhammad Ishaq Khan and Punjab Assembly Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal Khan.

The chief minister also ordered the Punjab Anti-Corruption Establishment DG and the CM Inspection Team (CMIT) chairman to carry out a joint investigation into the deforestation by timber mafia and ferret out facts about their possible links with the forest authorities. The CM also ordered to begin investigation into the issue from 1990 onwards. The team has been directed to investigate all the DFOs, posted at Changa Manga since 1990. Similarly the team has been directed to investigate all SDOs, Block Officers and Forest Guards who have been working here since then and the culprits shall be arrested and reported to police. The Changa Manga Forest used to cover 12,500 acres of planted forest which has now been reduced to 3,500 acres due to the rapid deforestation by timber mafia with the connivance of the forest officials.

It is to be noted that over the four years, three different teams have furnished their reports to the chief minister after conducting thorough investigation, but no action could be taken against the forest officials involved in the destruction of the world’s largest manmade forest. “Political backing and relation with local politicians let {guilty} forest officials off scotch-free,” sources claimed.

They pointed out that Changa Manga Forest had been deforested by the timber mafia including wood cutters, saw owners, forest officials and political figures of the area. This is because of political backing that now the planted forest has been reduced to 3,500 acres from 12,500 acres,” they described.

Talking to The Nation, Punjab Forest Secretary Maj (r) Shahnawaz Badar said that the Chief Minister was much annoyed at reports on rapid deforestation of Changa Manga. The CM took notice of the issue in his tent office and now he wants to see the real culprits behind the destruction,” he added.

On Saturday, officials of the CM Inspection Team visited the forest, took photographs and investigated different forest officials. The team has also sealed off the record room and SDO’s office. On the other hand, local forest officials put the blame for the destruction on the Irrigation Department, saying that lack of water was the reason behind deforestation. Meanwhile, the Irrigation Department official came up with documentary proofs to deny the claims regarding non-irrigation of the jungle.

Locals believed that the forest “political mafia” would again succeed in escaping the CM’s wrath as they had done in the past. They demanded the CM to hold an {open court} so the area people could share truth with the investigation team. “The members of the investigation team are just asking questions from the forest employees who themselves are thieves and will never let their colleagues behind the bars,” they apprehended.

Deforestation is depriving millions of people of the benefits of forestry which is crucial for food security, economic well-being and environmental health. UN figures showed that the world has lost 10 hectares (25 acres) of forest per minute over the last 15-year period, mainly because of the deforestation. The Changa Manga Wildlife Park was made by the British government in 1890 partly to provide fuel wood for the railways steam engines. This huge manmade forestry is located 10 km east of the National Highway on the way from Lahore to Sahiwal. In addition, there is a water turbine, waterfall, and a children play area. A serpentine rail track which used to take visitors on a 50-km ride through the forest is now just 5 km long because the mafia has even sold out the rail tracks.

Changa Manga Tourist Resort is situated 80-km from Lahore. The park is home to species of hog deer, Indian peafowl, jackal, mouflon, nilgai and wild boar. The park is one of the three wildlife parks located in Lahore division, other two Jallo Wildlife Park and Lahore Zoo Safari, also called Woodland Wildlife Parks.

Many people go to Changa Manga for picnic and merrymaking but a few are aware of the fact that they are visiting one of the largest irrigated and artificial forestry of the world. According to forest assessment conducted by the Ministry of Environment in 2004, total area of the forestry in the country is 5.01 per cent with an average rate of deforestation of forestry is 27,000 hectare per year.