The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pakistan suspects U.S. illegally cut down trees in its capital

Pakistani laborers walk to work down a leafy Islamabad street during heavy rainfall on Aug. 23. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

In Pakistan’s capital, government leaders and residents often boast of living in one of the world’s “greenest” cities.

Islamabad, built in the 1960s and envisioned as a paradise for Pakistan’s governing elite, sits at the base of the lush Margalla Hills in the Himalayan foothills. Nearly every yard in this city of about a half-million people includes at least a few trees. Islamabad also maintains “green belts” of parkland that separate neighborhoods.

That success in maintaining Islamabad’s greenery can be attributed to the Capital Development Authority (CDA), a municipal body tasked with protecting the city’s beauty. Before anyone cuts down a tree in Islamabad, homeowners must first get approval from the CDA, which often denies the requests.

But the CDA is now investigating whether the U.S. Embassy violated one of the cardinal rules for living in Islamabad: Don’t touch the trees.

[After years of tension, anti-American sentiment ebbs in Pakistan]

On Sunday, citing unnamed sources, Pakistan's the News newspaper reported that police recently intercepted a truck that was “illegally” hauling tens of thousands of dollars' worth of trees from the embassy compound last Tuesday.

In an interview with The Washington Post, a spokesman for the CDA, Ramazan Sajid, confirmed that there is an active investigation of the matter.

According to Sajid, the U.S. Embassy recently requested permission to cut down 94 trees to make way for the next phase of an ongoing $1 billion expansion. That request was never granted, he said.

“Before a [no-objection certificate] was issued, a contractor hired by the embassy started cutting the trees,” Sajid said. “Those trees were loaded onto a truck and being carried away when the truck was stopped by police. The police took the truck and the contractor to the police station.”

In all, Sajid said, Islamabad police confiscated 13 trees from the truck. He said authorities are trying to determine how many trees have been cut down and whether the embassy deliberately violated the law.

“We have sent a letter to the embassy seeking more details,” Sajid said. “I can’t say whether anyone from the embassy was involved, but it’s a fact that trees were cut without [permission], which is illegal.”

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said the incident was limited to one truckload of trees. The official also stressed that U.S. Embassy personnel were not involved.

“We understand that a contractor associated with the construction of the New Embassy Compound in Islamabad attempted to remove one truckload of felled trees from the construction without the required No Objection Certificate, and the Capital Development Authority has since fined the contractor,” the official said in a statement. “The U.S. Embassy has not removed any trees from the construction site without a permit.”

Islamabad police also said they consider the case to be closed.

“Police intercepted the truck when it came out of the diplomatic enclave loaded with trees, and he [the driver] was brought to the police station,” said Muhammad Irshad, an assistant police inspector. The driver was released after someone showed up at the station with a receipt indicating that he had paid a $300 fine to the CDA.

“The truck and driver were allowed to go after that,” Irshad said.

But the ongoing CDA investigation is likely to prompt fresh questions about why the embassy needs to cut down 94 trees to expand what is already a heavily fortified, 38-acre compound.

For years, the planned expansion of the U.S. Embassy has been controversial in Islamabad.

In 2009, critics of the expansion spread rumors that the United States was preparing to quietly station American troops or CIA agents on the property. More recently, an ongoing case in Pakistan’s Supreme Court is seeking to block the embassy from acquiring an additional 18 acres for its expansion. It is unclear whether those plans are related to the tree-cutting controversy.

“Only trees that fall within the footprint of new construction have been felled during the project, and a significant number of trees from the old embassy grounds have been relocated to the new compound,” said the U.S. official, adding that “extraordinary effort has been taken to preserve plants and trees where possible.”

Still, the controversy could prove to be a distraction as the U.S. government tries to prod Pakistan into doing more to protect its forests.

Islamabad’s greenery notwithstanding, Pakistan overall has retained just 2 percent to 5 percent of its tree canopy because of deforestation, according to estimates by private and public organizations. That rapid rate of tree loss has been blamed for Pakistan's struggle to combat lethal floods, disruptive landslides, poor water quality and air pollution.

[Energy shortages force Pakistanis to scavenge for wood, threatening tree canopy]

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which operates locally from the U.S. Embassy, has partnered with several Pakistani organizations over the years to try to combat this problem.

Two years ago, USAID Pakistan even co-hosted a “tree planting” campaign in Pakistan on World Environment Day.

“Trees are the world’s single largest source of oxygen,” a manager of the USAID-funded program was quoted as saying in a news release announcing the event. “They are under threat, which means we are under threat.”

Related stories:

Pakistan heat wave claims hundreds of lives

Outcry and fear as Pakistan builds new nuclear reactors in dangerous Karachi