Photo by Huzaifa Waheed on Unsplash

Bitter Shade

Michael R. Dove

The Pakistan Forest Service traditionally had distinct relations with two different rural clienteles. From one clientele, the peasantry, the Forest Service extracted fees for approved use of forest resources—grazing cattle and gathering fuelwood—and fines and bribes for unapproved uses. For the other clientele, the principal landlords in each district, the service provided subsidized tree plantings on their lands, within a broader pattern of reciprocal economic and political ties between the government and the rural elite—the foresters being part of this elite themselves. The senior officers in the Forest Service all do formal degree training at the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar, a prestigious institution modeled after the Indian forestry school in Dehra Dun. Once posted in Pakistan’s rural areas, forest officers command control of not only valuable natural resources—forests and grazing lands—but also important infrastructural resources, including offices and homes, staff and salaries, means of transportation and communication, and access to the other branches of government. These resources combine to make forest officers some of the most powerful political figures on the rural landscape, especially in Pakistan’s poorer and more remote rural districts.

The foresters’ view of rural elites as the appropriate focus for material and technical expertise, and the rural poor as the appropriate focus for surveillance, was long associated with dogmatic beliefs in the antipathy of farmers toward trees. Most foresters would maintain that small farmers do not have trees on their farms, do not want them, and would not agree to plant them—they are not “tree-minded.” If presented with incontrovertible evidence of tree cultivation by small farmers, foresters would dismiss this as not “from the heart.” Central to these beliefs is the idea that small farmers and trees do not mix, and more generally that agriculture and silviculture do not mix. The only on-farm tree cultivation that foresters could envisage would be block planting of exotic species for market sale by landlords of large farms.

The foresters’ beliefs regarding farmers’ lack of tree-mindedness are contradicted by field data. In a survey of farmers in the rainfed districts, 87 percent reported having trees on their farms, of which about half were planted and most of which were scattered about the farmland or located in the courtyard of the house or farmhouse—as opposed to being grouped in linear or block plantings. Two-thirds of the farmers surveyed expressed interest in Forest Service assistance to establish small plantings—meaning fewer than one thousand trees—of multi-purpose native species to meet household needs for fuel and timber. And the major reported obstacles to on-farm tree cultivation were not lack of interest or experience, but the typical challenges of the farming-forestry interface. Thus, whereas foresters saw the major obstacle to farm forestry as lack of motivation, the farmers themselves were focused on the normal farm forestry problems of water scarcity, protection from free-ranging cattle, and competition with annual crops.

The historic degradation of Pakistan’s forest cover does not mean that trees have vanished from the countryside. Trees abound in all graveyards and religious shrines, where they provide shade for the pious and eternal blessings for the planter. Trees are found within the enclosed courtyards of every rural home, for which they provide shade, fodder, and fruit. The greatest numbers of trees are found on the farmlands themselves: in clusters around water holes and tanks, where Mogul rulers decreed the planting of banyan (Ficus bengalensis); around wells and Persian wheels, where they shade the circling oxen; and in hedgerows along field boundaries, where they provide protection from wind and livestock incursions and yield fuel and fodder. The number, species, location, and growth of on farm trees are carefully managed in order to balance their perceived benefits against their perceived costs, in the latter case meaning deleterious effects on agricultural land and crops. This balance is typically articulated within the farmer discourse concerning sayah, “tree shade.”

Farmers conceive of tree shade not as the absence of something—light—but rather as the presence of something associated with the tree. As Casati writes, shade has a perceptive aspect, a causal aspect, and also a material aspect. For Pakistani farmers, tree shade has five major characteristics: size, duration, density, temperature, and taste. Each characteristic is believed to vary with the tree species, and the impact of tree shade on food crops is believed to vary accordingly. The varying character of tree shade is well expressed in the proverb of the Pushto-speaking tribes of the region: “Look at the tree before sitting under its shadow.” Although it is intended to be a metaphor about human social relations, it is nonetheless rooted in a belief that not all shade is alike; it varies with the tree that produces it.

From Bitter Shade by Michael R. Dove. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Michael R. Dove is Margaret K. Musser Professor of Social Ecology in the Yale School of the Environment, professor of anthropology, and curator in the Peabody Museum of Natural History. His previous books include The Banana Tree at the Gate and Climate Cultures.

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