With the onset of tourist season soon after Eid, construction activity is in full swing in Neelum Valley to accommodate the number of visitors expected to arrive this summer.
The valley, located on the far end of Azad Kashmir, offers an ideal vacation spot amid dense forests and streams. It is expected to receive more than 600,000 tourists this year.
Official figures suggest that around 500,000 to 600,000 people visited Neelum Valley last year; more than half the total number of visitors to AJK in 2018.
Due to the government’s efforts to harness tourism potential, the number of Pakistanis visiting parts of Pakistan, AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan is growing every year.
Greater stability in the law and order situation in most of the country has also encouraged Pakistanis to travel to new areas, as well as the spread of information and direct marketing by tour operators.
Although the number of tourists has improved the local economy, it has already taken a toll on the fragile environment of the valley. The rampant construction of guesthouses has led to a high demand for timber, leading to increased illegal logging in the area.
Houses in Neelum Valley and other parts of Kashmir are traditionally made entirely of wood, which is why the construction of guesthouses has put severe stress on forests. Chopped trees, the transportation of wood and all kinds of lumber activity is visible even to outsiders, and officials are wary of the situation.
“Tourism is set to become the livelihood of many areas in AJK, but it should not destroy the roots of society. That includes the ecosystem,” Peerzada Irshad Ahmed, the director general of AJK Tourism, said.
He added: “But, unfortunately, of the 22 guesthouses being built in one area of the Neelum Valley, only one has legally acquired wood for construction.”
“Where is this timber coming from? The forest – our forest, but it means we are hitting what is attracting tourists here.”
The main reason for illegal lumbering is weakness in forest governance, along with corruption and management on the part of officials. There are also other governance problems, such as weak institutions and limited resources.
Traditionally, the local and rural community has lived in harmony with the forest, and laws that include strict penalties for stealing wood were effectively enforced under British rule.
Locals living close to the forest in the valley are very poor because there is limited agriculture produce. They depend entirely on the forest for their needs and survival, including their food, such as mushrooms, greens and wild berries.
Environmentalists have argued strongly against wood-based construction, in order to reduce the cutting down of trees.
Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) Director Vaqar Zakria said the forest department was more to blame for illegal logging.
“We successfully convinced the locals of Ferry Meadows in GB that they gain very little by cutting trees and eventually face the loss of their livelihood,” Mr Zakria said.
“We are trying to involve locals to benefit from tourism instead of cutting down their best resource.”
In addition to providing food and grazing ground for cattle, the forest is also a key source of fuel for locals who rely on firewood for cooking and heating.
The HWF is encouraging locals to adopt various trades attached to tourism and help change their dependence on the forest.
“With the rise in tourism, the requirement for firewood has increased manifold as tourists prefer bonfires, but it consumes enormous amounts of wood so we have suggested that as affordability increases, guesthouses should start using LPG to save wood resources,” HWF consultant Summara Raza said.
She said that as in Murree, extensive fragmentation and degradation of the forest would put animals and plant species on the verge of extinction.
The AJK government, too, is aware of the public concern and the cabinet has approved strict regulations on forest management.
Tourism Minister Mushtaq Minhas said his ministry is set to launch a complaints cell where illegal logging will be reported and forwarded to the forest department.
“But the most important thing is to plant more trees, and we are planning to introduce a concept of attracting tourists as volunteers to plant a tree in the forest, to use tourism as a tool for protecting the environment,” he said.