The Swat Valley is a popular tourist destination due to its abundant natural beauty, including snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear lakes, lush green meadows, and dense forests.
Nearly two million people traveled to the valley last year, making it the most popular tourist destination in Pakistan. However, for the last three weeks, it has been in the news due to major wildfires that have destroyed over 14,000 acres of forest.
Aside from the dry weather, several of the fires were started deliberately by residents who wanted to take advantage of centuries-old legislation that gave them joint ownership of the woods with the government.
The concept of shared property, or “Shamilat,” was brought to Pakistan by the Yousufzai family, who conquered the Swat Valley in the 16th century. This legislation permits local people to share ownership of forests with the government.
In accordance with the legislation, they are permitted to cut down trees and utilize grasslands for cattle grazing. To get firewood, however, they can only cut down limbs or dead trees.
Pakistan had similarly approved the legislation, with slight modifications, in 1969.
Latif-ur-Rahman, a spokesperson for the Forest Department, has seen an uptick in the number of cases where fires were started on purpose in order to clear more areas for agricultural use.
According to Mohammad Nafees, chairman of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Peshawar, rivers, mountains, streams, and woods were all considered to be communally owned in the original Shamilat tradition.
However, following its formal incorporation in 1969, Pakistan’s government made certain adjustments, including designating the forest trees state property and granting villagers the ability to harvest forest lands and collect tree branches for personal use.
He went on to explain that there is another unwritten rule that states a farmer whose property borders a hilly forest is legally permitted to clear the adjacent forest swath and combine it into his own piece of land.
Swat had a forest cover of 30 percent in 1947 when Pakistan gained its independence, but that number has now dropped to less than 15 percent, he added. Thick forest cover is now confined to only the highest and most remote mountains.
Seventy percent of Swat’s woods are governed by the Shamilat legislation, while the other 30 percent are either state-owned or privately held.
The most recent data from the Forest Department states that over 210 wildfires have been detected in the districts of Swat, Shangla, and Buner, 55 of which were ignited deliberately by locals.