Pakistan's Woman Conservationist With A Wilderness Mission

Was she born in the sub-Himalayan Galiyat region of Pakistan to save its forests from becoming firewood for a growing population of the valleys? A look at her persona, and a peep into her thoughts and ideas suggest it might indeed have been so.

Sabiha Zaman is small and lean, but the look on her face and the callouses on her hands show she has the power and the willingness to fight and beat a jungle fire if ever one broke out down these swaying slopes.

Each morning, she leaves her home in Mulachh village near the famous tourist destination of Nathiagali, takes a ten-minute walk down a steep path to the Abbottabad-Murree road, takes a ride on a passenger van for 25 minutes to reach the town of Kalabagh, and then either walks or hitches a ride for a couple of kilometers down the valley to report at the regional office of the non-profit conservation group, the WWF Pakistan.

Her association with WWF is almost two decades old, she says.

Galyat are a mountainous region of lush green pine forests which is home to some of the most famous tourist destinations such as Murree, Bhurban, Ayubia, Thandiani and Nathiagali, the summer capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. But it is also one of the most deprived in terms of health and education, due mainly to its deep and remote valleys, many of which are almost impossible to reach. The entire region stretches from Pakistani capital Islamabad to Abbottabad in the KP province.

In 1997, WWF Pakistan launched what they called an ‘Ethno-Botany’ project in Ayubia National Park, a protected area that cuts across most of the Galyat region, to start income and alternative fuel programmes that would reduce pressure on forests. The headquarters of the project was set up at Kalabagh village, which is a centre-point between Murree and Abbottabad.

Sabiha Zaman became the first local female volunteer to join the project, and she has since taken various programmes of WWF to the doorstep of nearly every household in the various valleys of the region. Many officials I spoke to at WWF said she had become the mainstay of all their projects related to female population in the area. So what sets her apart?

In her own words, a major reason is her ability to break through the barriers that hold the women back in Pakistan’s typically conservative rural society. “I was perhaps the only woman of my generation in these parts to be able to go to school, and I was also fortunate enough to determine my marital status myself,” she tells me as we walk to a small nursery of plants she maintains in the backyard of her office.

She was born in 1966 – the eighth child in a typical Galyat family that owned a little farmland for summer crops and depended on its male members to bring some income from tourism related jobs. Her father held a night watchman’s job in Nathiagali, and her elder brother, who did well at school, got a bank job in Karachi.

Ms Zaman went to Karachi to live with her brother, and completed her high school Matriculation certificate in 1986. She regards her brother as her only major support in all the important decisions she has made in her life. But her father was not far behind. “My father didn’t like my going to school, but he trusted my instincts. So, many years later, when I told him I didn’t want to marry, he just turned around and said, ‘so from now on I’ll count you as my fifth son’. It sounded like a compliment to me.”

After school she joined a training course for paramedics in Rawalpindi, and became a fully fledged nurse, a profession which she says is socially unpopular in her area and people initially said all sorts of morally degrading things about her. But that changed with her permanent return to the village after her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

“I took care of my mother, and after she passed away, I spent several years providing primary medical care to local people; those who had said wicked things about me in the past changed their opinion, and would often bring the sick in their families to me. Most valleys here are extremely remote and difficult to reach. So if they couldn’t bring a sick person to me, I myself went to see them.”

This was the kind of knowledge of the area and personal credibility that she brought to the WWF. During her stay here, she has for the most part focused on getting the area’s housewives involved in farming vegetables. “The idea is to augment household income and also to provide alternative firewood for winter so that the pine forests could be saved,” she says.

The process has been painfully slow. “It has meant a change in the local lifestyle, and I have had to look for sample households that would be better equipped to embrace the change,” she says.

This in essence meant households where extra manpower – or rather woman power, in this particular case – was available. “The job is mainly to train women in preparing land for selected crops, modern tilling techniques, developing a time-table to administer fertilizers and water the crop, and how to harvest them.”

The fruits of her efforts are now visible. A number of women engaged in kitchen gardening with Sabiha told me cheerfully how they enjoyed harvesting loads of cucumbers and French beans last season. They not only used them at home but there was also enough surplus to be sold in the market.

Ms Zaman herself underwent intensive training in kitchen gardening and raising a grove of fast-growing tree species suitable as fuel wood. This is where her competitive edge over the others came to the fore. “She came across as an expert on plant identification because she knew both the scientific and local names for the plants,” says Mohammad Waseem, the head of the WWF Pakistan operations in the Ayubia National Park area. “As such, she proved to be a huge help for both expert botanists and students visiting the area in connection with their studies and research.”

Ms Zaman says her strategy was to choose a few households that would give in to experimentation and also serve as a model for the rest of the community. “I first raised the prescribed vegetables and trees myself before involving the community, so that when we practice an idea in public, it should not lead to failure.”

Her eye for detail has helped her make a mark in many other WWF projects. She has been part of a reasonably successful awareness campaign about the conservation of common leopard in Galyat region.

In recent years she has also spearheaded a tailoring project. One of the villages where it has sunk roots is Arifabad. “When the project first came to our village, I couldn’t properly put the thread through a needle, but now I’m sewing clothes of all the men and women in my family,” says Neelum Bibi, a local resident.

Many women who took stitching courses under the scheme say that besides saving the money they used to spend on professional tailors, they are also earning some pocket money on the side by stitching clothes for neighbours.

In the year 2000, Ms Zaman was awarded a Falcon Foundation Award for her role in protecting bio-diversity in the Ayubia National Park area of Galyat. In 2003, she became one of only five plant experts to receive an Ethno-Botany Shield, awarded jointly by People and Plants International and WWF Pakistan. In 2003, she was nominated by WWF Pakistan for the North American Nature Conservation Award. But is she counting her laurels? Well, not yet, she responds with a defiant smile.

Wrapped in a beige chador, a khaddar shalwar-suite, a double-knitted woolen jumper and a sturdy looking pair of joggers, she wades through her office nursery, turning over the leaves of the plants to pluck out unwanted grass underneath. “There’s plenty of work to do. I might say I’ve achieved this or that, but it’s nothing when I see that most of our women are still not empowered enough,” she says. “We will only succeed in salvaging our habitat when we have salvaged the status of our women.”

The feature is a part of TheParallelPost’s special series on Pakistan.

©theparallelpost | 2014

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