By Alvina Ashraf & Zoha Khan
In the year 2008, Karachi witnessed rapid plantation of Conocarpus trees. After a decade, the same Karachi encountered a massive cut-down spree of these trees; that too, so rampant that it raised a bunch of questions. Many believed that the plant was hazardous to the environment — blaming it to be responsible for the hike in heat waves.
Silence for a decade; why the uproar now?
Zia, a clinical researcher at Agha Khan University and a pro-Conocarpus activist, believes that the timber mafia is behind this massive cut-down spree. “It is a common act of thievery that is widespread globally, and more so in Pakistan because of the lack of accountability,” he says.
It seems these mafias are more active in the northern areas of Pakistan and the hill stations around Karachi. “They cut the trees mostly during night without the government’s consent and the wood is nowhere to be seen in the morning,” Zia claims.
Furthermore, he said “You will never see these cut trees with an impressive bark girth lying around in the dumpster. They are cut into smaller pieces and shipped away by the mafia to their hideouts.”
This argument and the campaign which followed, suffered severe backlash. Many could not accept a new perspective that was contradicting their opinions and beliefs. However, it gained momentum when plant aficionados joined hands to lend their support.
One such person is Dr. Yahya Noori, an Associate Professor of Microbiology at DOW University. He supported the primary stance of the campaign and vehemently debunked the rumors that the Conocarpus plant neither produces oxygen nor assimilates carbon dioxide and exudes all the water into the air.
He was quick to add the fact that if a plant is green and growing and producing wood because of photosynthesis — then that in itself — endorses that it assimilates carbon dioxide. There is, however, absolutely no denying that a Conocarpus plant indeed tampers with infrastructure, he explained.
Plants not the problem, inadequate research is.
Mr. Yousuf Adnan, an eco-physiologist, states that the best part about Conocarpus is its root system which spreads horizontally. “If it disrupts the infrastructure, it is only because of poor or no planning and research, which is exactly what happened in Karachi,” he says.
Mr. Zia reiterates, “If not Conocarpus, you’ll find other plant’s roots stuck in your water pipe. Plants are not the problem, humans and their habit of not researching enough is.”
He further added how his supervisor carried out a full-fledged experiment solely to investigate this claim. Earlier, it was only meant to be planted on the green beds running alongside roads, but the citizens of Karachi started planting them within their residential areas.
Both experts categorically addressed that it is not favourable to do so. Now, it is wrong to blame the plant itself on such grounds, when it is purely the result of careless and excessive plantation.
The propaganda surrounding Conocarpus also entails that it impacts our environment negatively. Some went as far as to say that it is responsible for the ongoing heat wave in Karachi and this was enough to asperse the existence of Conocarpus in our biosphere.
Sardar Zahoor Hussain, an activist leading plantation campaigns, said that no plant can cause such a change in climate. “We have had heat waves before Conocarpus plantation and we'll experience them well after its deforestation.”
He also suggested that, “Rainfall rate depends on the number of plants but not on the kind of plant. Since rainfall depends on several variables, we cannot relate it solely to the plantation of one kind of tree.”
Speaking of the dilemma of the existence of monoculture, Zahoor has an entirely different view. “Let's agree for a second that monoculture exists in Karachi. Was this claim substantial enough to carry such a merciless campaign against these trees?” he questions. “We could have instead taken up some other measures to deal with the problem. Did anyone try to seek an expert’s advice?”
He says that it could have been easily dealt with by incorporating some native species such as neem, moringa, or gulmohar to complement the plantation of Conocarpus. “Nothing, by any means, justifies this outrageous deforestation,” he exclaims.
Zahoor, in fact, terms Conocarpus as an ideal plant for Karachi due to its unique ability to survive and thrive irrespective of the nature of water. “People who say Conocarpus is an alien species and should not be here, then what about chikoo and jack fruit and several other plants?” he wonders.
Furthermore, there is a misconception that it generates excessive pollen, which gives birth to airborne diseases. But Dr. Yousuf refuted any such claims, as, in his view, it is based upon sheer conjecture. 'It cannot be agreed upon as so far there hasn't been any scientific research or experiment validating this.”
Dr.Yahya reaffirmed this statement and said that even if it causes respiratory diseases, it is not the only contributing factor. One should not underestimate the hazardous gases and smoke emitted by vehicles and factories. “So, have we stopped driving cars?”
Dr. Yahya's question played a role of a catalyst in our search for the truth. Even if the anti-conocarpus campaign happened for good, what did we achieve after it? What has been done to fill up the empty space left after the cut down of these trees?
All we see is hue and cry about the city's increasing temperature but little has been done to minimize it.
The sanest solution in the eyes of these experts was to first think about its replacement before proceeding to its cutting. The most recommended replacements are fruit trees such as mango, chikoo and apple amongst others; simply for all the goodness they have to offer. These plants have immense fodder, economic and edible value and could potentially do wonders for the city's climate, experts claim.
To sum it up — a lot has been said about Conocarpus, which is mostly negative. And, the reason the truth has not managed to surface is because of the elaborate social media movement against it and the lack of seeking an expert’s advice on the matter; be it with the plantation or its deforestation.