“Besides providing shade for other life forms, the forest had immense benefits other than being a source for timber. But the wretched people high on greed failed to understand that. They started cutting down the forest for the land about which they carried their own plans, very different from what nature perceived for things to be. Those who could see the wrong in this were also cut like the forest when they came in the way.”
It may sound like the story of devastation of the alien planet Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar, but when it comes to our own surroundings and the ruining of our very own habitat, this is no fictional universe but a painful reality as narrated in the documentary, Murder of Mystic.
From football documentaries that were highly appreciated by the lovers of the game here to an eye-opener on Gawadar’s ship-breaking industry, the film-makers of Outfield Productions have now blown the lid off a very big can of worms. The subject for their fifth documentary is the destruction of Pakistan’s precious mangrove forests by the land grabbers.
Murder of Mystic (killing of a spiritual tree) is a 55-minute documentary that was recently test-screened at the Alliance Francaise in Karachi with the cooperation of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). The film which shows the harm caused to this unique coastal feature also takes the input of the many people belonging to the coastal communities as well as the various experts and stakeholders.
The fisher folk perhaps know best the importance of the mangroves as they are home to some 25 species of fish, crabs and shrimps. Then there are the pelicans, flamingoes, kingfishers and six to eight other species of birds such as cranes and ducks that pass by the mangroves while migrating to warmer climates. They serve as a feeding ground for them, but the numbers of the resident and migratory birds are now dwindling due to the thinning of the mangroves.
Mangrove forests also serve as a protective shield by helping to divert cyclones. During floods people have saved themselves by grabbing on to the strong Timmer trees.
The Timmer does well in murky waters. It has a great root system that provides support and helps it to grow and stand tall in water. But without human support, these trees won’t be able to survive for much longer and that’s what prompts Abu Wada of Rehri Goth to sing “Timmer jaisay podon ki khidmat karo tum din raat…” (Plants like mangroves need your service round the clock).
And that’s what producer/director Khalid Hasan Khan noticed while passing through the Mai Kolachi bypass. “Coming towards Clifton via Mai Kolachi, you see reclaimed land on the right with sewerage on the left where there are still some mangroves left. Those too will die off and reclamation will begin there as well, even though this is disputed territory with cases in the court,” points out the film-maker.
“The voices raised over the issue by the wise and well-meaning fisher folk, who have meager livelihoods associated with the mangroves, are being silenced. It was also the killings of activists Abdul Ghani and Abu Bakar on May 6 this year that served as the motivation for us to highlight this very sensitive issue through the film.” he says.“These people, and the other fisher folk of Kaka Pir, are being punished for choosing ‘green’ over greed. Someone should realise that this is a community of human souls, not a jungle of beasts,” Khalid adds.
“On the other hand, we have the so-called well-meaning environmental NGOs that put up pictures of the slain activitists on their websites while remaining indifferent to the major issue of destruction. You rarely hear these environmental organisations raising their voices against the disappearing mangrove forests or the land grabbers. It would seem they are only interested in the quick devastation of nature so that they are able to get replantation projects from donors. Conservation doesn’t mean letting people cut trees so you can replant them. Good conservation involves protection rather than restoration,” he says. “The fisher folk women, who have lost breadwinners in the fight, are also being used as commodities in this whole affair as it is they who are used for planting of the saplings in exchange for a few rupees.”
Meanwhile, the PFF Chairman Mohammad Ali Shah who appears frequently in the film, wonders what use is replanting when you can’t save the older generation of trees that are already there. “A Timmer tree takes some 10 to 12 years to mature and cutting down even one is a big loss to the environment,” he says. “Giving importance to restoration rather than focusing on protection is like setting up a university where there is hardly any concept of primary education.”
He gives the example of an enthusiastic tree plantation drive by several NGOs in collaboration with the Government of Sindh that took place here some time back. “It was a drive being held in both Pakistan and India simultaneously. They said that they were going to plant some four-and-a-half lac saplings in India while here at Keti Bandar our NGOs claimed to have planted five-and-a-half lac saplings. The event was designed to create a big hype as they wanted a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“But it all seems like eyewash really for we can’t even find a few of those trees now. I’ll blame the same attitude of looking for new replantation projects while not caring about what is already there for this. All living things need nurturing. Just planting to create records is not good enough,” Shah points out.
Perhaps that is why Yasir, a boy from Rehri Goth, also says in the film that he is not impressed by the work of the NGOs. “Only God grows the trees here,” he says.
This is the first serious effort in Pakistan to make a feature-length documentary on an environmental issue. “As we are still in post-production, we are open to suggestions for improving our work. The test screening of Murder of Mystic was held for the stakeholders such as WWF, IUCN and PFF to get their feedback so that the film could be further improved but though the event was well attended by the fisher folk, besides one or two people from the WWF, no one from IUCN came even though the screening venue happened to be just half-a-kilometre away from their head office,” says Khalid H. Khan. “If the prime stakeholders themselves won’t come forward, such environmental causes would continue to suffer.”