It was reported by TheNation last week that a case has been registered against two District Forest Officers and 20 other employees of the Forest Department for theft of trees in Bhakkar. The worth of stolen trees was reported to be Rs 280 million. This, of course, is not an isolated incident. Illegal felling of trees in forests with the connivance of officials responsible for protecting them has been reported from various parts of the country. On the surface, it seems to be an administrative issue involving the corruption of some forest officials. To me, however, such reports point in another direction: the ongoing war between human greed and nature. The ravaging signs of this war scar the entire planet. And it is not only about trees.

Everywhere you look, natural environment is under attack. A distorted discourse on environmental protection, sponsored and propagated by interests that ravage it most cruelly, has been employed to distract people from the real debate. Tokenism is the name of the game. The donor-driven multi-million dollar enterprise championing the cause of nature, ecosystems, wildlife, climate change and what not, is busy churning out one misleading cause after another, giving us the false comfort of feeling that there are organisations out there doing something about the destruction of our natural environment. They prop up mascots of endangered species as token of their love for the animal kingdom; snow leopards, houbara bustards, pandas or some Amazonian bird. They identify localised ecological disasters and find reasons to blame poor communities for bringing them about. They never talk about the worldwide ecological disaster and those who are responsible for it.

Isn’t it a bit strange that while you’d find these champions of the natural environment raising a hue and cry about cutting of trees by a resource-starved community to meet its need to cook food, you don’t hear a whimper about the apocalyptic destruction and pollution caused by unregulated and illegal activities of big industrial concerns? They’d spend millions on campaigns to save some species declared endangered by their organisation, but you won’t hear a word from them about how mass-scale fishing is destroying habitats and sea-life at an amazing rate in so many places. Their conferences, seminars, reports and publications rant and rave about what they have cleverly chosen to put under the microscope, sending us all on futile wild goose chases, while our world is set on fire by their patrons and sponsors. They print pretty posters to raise awareness about imagined extinctions, while our planet goes down the drain.

The well-paid champions of nature portray the challenge of environmental degradation and destruction in misleading bits, side-stepping the larger issue of mindless exploitation of natural resources by the super-rich and their powerful partners in governments, the plunder in fast-motion for billion-dollar profits. The capitalist number-crunching discourse, calculating human development in terms of GDP, FDI and manufactured growth rates, makes it all kosher. The word used to cover up all crimes against our natural environment is “Development”. It doesn’t seem to matter who benefits from development and who is pushed against the wall. This soulless development has no place in it for real people, especially poor people. The profits of industrial giants are good because they add to the official figures. The price paid by local communities and their environment has no place for them in these statistics.

A fishing contract to a multi-national firm is good for the economy because it brings in the revenues for the government. The loss for entire fishing communities, the destruction of natural habitats and the rapid depletion of the fish the poor fishermen catch to barely survive, is not mentioned in the official balance sheets. Millions are spent on cajoling industrialists pumping poisons in natural water bodies to clean up their act. The government is reluctant to take action against them because they generate revenue. How many poor people die or fall sick, how many acres of land become barren because of their industrial activity, is not their concern.

Everything is loaded in the favour of the fat cats and against the natural environment and the poor people depending on it for their meagre livelihood. Development, as defined by the movers and shakers of our unipolar capitalist world, is a concept obsessed with numbers and with no place for people.

We hear the same sermons on development, on the need for the developing countries to emulate the developed ones, from well-paid economists working for big money and the various forums they create to convince everyone of the scientific credibility of their framework. We hear it from our governments, from opposition politicians, from media analysts and civil society leaders. Everyone’s bought the evil fairytale as divine revelation. They dare not questions the system of wealth-extraction at work behind the façade of this so-called development, a system designed to make the poor poorer and the rich richer. They are not bothered about how this statistics-laden materialistic concept of human development has turned our society topsy-turvy. These powerful, privileged leaders don’t want to rock the boat because all of them are riding it. The solution offered to those sinking all around them is simple: find a way to board the boat. Or wait for the crumbs to trickle down. It doesn’t seem to matter that the crumbs have never trickled down to people who need them. It doesn’t seem to matter that the boat would sink if everyone jumped on board.

The 22 Forest Department officials charged for stealing trees they were paid to protect were obviously trying to board the boat. They are no different from our privileged elites who have been given the stewardship of our planet but, clueless about their responsibility, they are only interested in stealing from it to add digits to the dollars in their banks. They don’t care how their daylight robbery, sanctioned by exploitative and fraudulent frameworks of development and capitalism, is destroying the planet and making the poor wilt under the burden of their greed. The champions of our natural environment are paid well to distract us from the culprits who are destroying it.

The writer is a freelance columnist.  Email: hazirjalees@hotmail.com