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Quest For Fire


new internationalist
issue 184 - June 1988

Quest for fire
A Suzuki car and a US holiday are amongst prizes being
offered by the Pakistan Government to anyone who plants
more than 25 acres of trees in this, the 'Year of Trees for South Asia'.
How will it help those who need fuel for their cooking?
Maria del Nevo went to find out.

Case Study Illustration: The State of India's Environment 1984-85 I met Mumtaz outside Lahore in a forest owned privately by a contractor who supplies wood to furniture manufacturers. Alongside the contractor and his workers, about 30 women and children were roaming through loose bracken collecting refuse from fallen trees, piling it onto cloth to carry in bundles on their heads back to the villages. Two women were arguing loudly about whose bundle was heaviest, the elder complaining she had more to carry.

All the women said they couldn't spare the time to talk, and in the end I asked the contractor to persuade Mumtaz to sit with me. After some hesitation she agreed. Mumtaz was a thick-set woman with small, dark eyes. Her head was covered with a chadar, the bottom of which she had caught in her mouth to cover the lower part of her face. When she dropped the cloth to speak I saw broken, yellow-stained teeth.

She told me she walks nine miles to the spot every week, paying five rupees (40 cents) to the contractor for the privilege of spending a day on his land collecting wood chips. One of her six children helps her in this work and together they take four wood-bundles home. Mumtaz has no access to wood nearer her village and as her husband only earns 30 rupees a day she can't afford to buy fuel from the bazaar. So she trudges a total of 18 miles every week for wood.

Her working day begins at dawn when she prepares the family's food. Domestic work follows: washing the cooking pots and clothes in the canal, cleaning the house, preparing food, caring for her children. After a day collecting wood, she doesn't return until evening and works late into the night finishing her other jobs.

I asked her why she uses wood when it is so scarce. Could she not use some other fuel? She stared at me long and hard and asked if I could suggest something else. At that moment there was a whole world between us and the interview came to an end. Mumtaz said she didn't wish to speak to me any longer, my questions were useless and I was wasting her time. As I got up to leave she told me that if I wanted to help, I could always ask the contractor to let her off the five-rupees registration fee.

Grin and bear it: dung patties for fuel.
Peter Grant / Camera Press

That same day, I travelled about 100 miles west of Mumtaz's village to a region with no forest at all. This village was totally different in almost every respect - except that the people face the same struggle to survive.

I sat with Umra while she breast-fed her six-month-old child: she has ten children altogether. Her husband is a sweeper earning 700 rupees ($50) a month, which Umra said did not cover their expenses. One of these is fuel to cook the family's food.

Umra rises at dawn to prepare breakfast. Then she goes to work for a family which owns a buffalo in her village. There she makes cow pats for her employers to sell as fuel to villagers. Umra does not get paid in cash. But for working four hours a day she gets given six pans of raw dung a week. This is her main fuel-source. Without the job she has no other access to finding dung and in an area with so few trees it is becoming as precious as wood.

In the afternoons Umra labours in the fields. Walking home she makes a three-mile detour along the canal bank collecting twigs and fallen branches. 'Six pans of raw dung only last three to four days, but if I collect 20 kilograms of wood and mix them it will last 10 to 12 days,' she told me. Often the police patrol the canal, arresting anyone they find collecting wood. 'Even if we are only picking up twigs the police accuse us of cutting down branches, which is illegal'. She used to send her 13-year-old son but her husband stopped her because it was too dangerous. Now she goes herself.

After our talk she smiled suddenly and told me that she had grown two trees outside her house. I asked her why, was it for fuel? 'No, for beauty,' she replied. I looked surprised. She shrugged. 'Well, if we ever run out of fuel and my neighbours refuse to loan me any, I may have to cut some branches.'

Mumtaz and Umra are silent victims of the tree crisis. They have no rights to a resource they need to keep their families alive. And because trees are forbidden to them, they roam the lands like scavengers. Their figures can be seen walking the many miles home with large bundles on their heads, backs straight, bodies graceful - they remain forever proud.

They are as distant from the wood they need, as from the lucky farmers who will be rewarded for planting trees by 1,200 rupees, a Suzuki car, a Haj trip to Mecca or a ticket to the US. Although Umra had no idea that 1988 is the Year of Trees in South Asia, she contributed by planting two herself. But we can be sure that she will not be the fortunate person who will be on that plane.

Formerly one of the NI team in Oxford, Maria del Nevo is currently a volunteer working with the Anglican Diocese of Lahore.

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New Internationalist issue 184 magazine cover This article is from the June 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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