The province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) is on its way to becoming a case study in how to successfully combat the impact of global warming and climate change, and protect the natural environment, and that too in a developing country like Pakistan, where too often such initiatives are shoved to the backburner. K-P’s Billion Tree Tsunami project initiated just over two years ago continues to garner local and international claim with three-quarters of a billion new trees having been planted with the aim of reversing forest loss in the province.
The success of the project is there for all to see. Previously barren terrains, often in the control of criminal elements, have now been turned into nurseries where saplings have been planted. The local population has been quick to embrace the project, acknowledging its importance to their lives, as well as to the province and the country as a whole.
Reuters reports that an estimated 500,000 green jobs have been created through the effort, some of which have gone to rural women and unemployed youth. Many small-scale nurseries have been established, which regularly help people working there earn incomes of around Rs12,000-15,000 per month per person, a substantial income for inhabitants of small villages of K-P.
Besides the incomes being generated, people in K-P have also realised other more long-lasting positive effects that this major afforestation and reforestation drive can have on their lives, something acknowledged by Rab Nawaz, senior director of programmes for WWF-Pakistan, an organisation actively involved in auditing the tree-planting effort.
“This is not just about planting trees but about changing attitudes,” he told Reuters.
The Billion Tree Tsunami project aims to turn around the massive deforestation that has ravaged K-P over the years and increase the province’s forested area by at least two per cent. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, Pakistan’s forest cover has been reduced to under two per cent of its land area, mainly due to aggressive tree felling by the timber mafia. Around 40 per cent of the country’s remaining forests are in K-P, where the PTI government’s tree-planting effort is expected to hit its billion-tree goal within this year.
The first step
The project was undertaken by K-P’s Green Growth Initiative (GGI), which set out the vision for how it would achieve the billion-tree mark. As a first step in the ambitious Billion Tree Tsunami project, the K-P government provided loans and purchase agreements worth Rs11 billion to help set up a network of tree nurseries across the province in 2016.
GGI Chairman Malik Amin Aslam Khan told Reuters that around 13,000 government and private nurseries, in almost every district of the province, are now producing hundreds of thousands of saplings of local and imported tree varieties, including pines, walnuts and eucalyptus. The nurseries have provided around 40 per cent of the new trees in K-P while the remaining trees have come from natural regeneration in forests now put under protection. Many small-scale nurseries, producing up to 25,000 saplings, have been set up with cash advances and a guaranteed purchase agreement from the provincial government.
Aslam said the regeneration effort is being monitored by both the provincial forest department and WWF-Pakistan, working as an auditor.
WWF-Pakistan’s Nawaz termed the restoration effort an amazing achievement by K-P’s forest department and local communities.
“Whether you support the PTI or not, no one can deny that this is an environmental, economic and social success for other provinces to follow,” he said.
Monitoring and accountability
The Billion Tree Tsunami project is being actively monitored using modern technology. A website has been set up that includes the GPS coordinates of all the plantations and a live tree counter.
In addition, there is a complete ban on cutting trees in the province and efforts have been made to counter the perverse influence of the timber mafia. More than 600 illegal sawmills have been shut down and more than 300 timber cutters have been arrested. This is in addition to the issuance of heavy fines for those caught cutting down trees.
“All of these steps have forced the timber mafia on to the back foot and delivered a clear political message of ‘zero tolerance’ to the illicit cutting of wood,” said Aslam.
Given that the project was an initiative of the political party in power in K-P, it was important that it progressed beyond being just a tool in the country’s highly polarised and partisan party politics and became something to be proud of and emulated by the rest of Pakistan. In this regard, recognition by international organisations, known for their neutrality, has been important. The project has been recognised by the Bonn Challenge, a global partnership aiming to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by 2020.
The Bonn challenge website estimates an economic benefit of the reforestation effort at $121 million for the province, in terms of carbon sequestration, better watershed improvement and future sustainable wood supplies.
The project has proven so popular that the federal government has now begun implementing its own “Green Pakistan Programme”, whose aim is to plant 100 million trees all over the country over the next five years.
In addition, the most recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) praised the K-P government for surpassing the Bonn Challenge of reclaiming more than 348,000 hectares of barren and degraded land. The report backs the figure given by the provincial government, of more than 13,000 private tree nurseries, which have been established under the project across the province and that have boosted local incomes by generating thousands of green jobs.
A statement by the IUCN read: “This marks the first Bonn Challenge pledge to reach its restoration goal.”
IUCN Director General Inger Anderson added: “The Billion Tree Tsunami initiative is a true conservation success story, one that further demonstrates Pakistan’s leadership role in the international restoration effort and continued commitment to the Bonn Challenge.”
WWF-Pakistan has also termed the Billion Tree Tsunami project an environmental, economic and social success, with one of the highest survival rates of trees in the world, ranging from 70 to 90 per cent.
WWF-Pakistan Director General Hamaad Khan Naqi told Voice of America: “If the trend continues, there will be more birds, there will be more microbes, there will be more insects, so there will be more animals, so more habitats. The ecosystem will kind of literally revive in certain places. There will be more rains because we do need rains.”