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Earthly matters: One billion trees

February 21, 2016


Chir pine saplings being grown -Photo by the writer
Chir pine saplings being grown -Photo by the writer

While the provincial government in Punjab is recklessly cutting trees in order to expand roads and build other infrastructure, the Khyber Pakhtunkwa provincial government is single-mindedly planting as many trees as it can. Not only do trees provide shade / cooling, prevent soil erosion and improve watersheds, they also play an important role in countering climate change. They act as carbon sinks by absorbing the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. In fact, an entire article of the recent Paris Agreement (on climate change) is devoted to conserving and enhancing “sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases”.

Unfortunately, Pakistan has one of the lowest forest covers in the region — WWF-Pakistan says it is less than 3pc although the federal government claims it is around 5pc. Either way the situation is dire.

We have all heard about the massive four year “Billion Tree Tsunami” project recently launched by the KP government, which is more than welcome in a country that has the highest annual deforestation rate in Asia (according to a recent WWF report). To see the impacts of this ambitious project on ground, the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Islamabad organised a field trip for local journalists to visit the nearby Haripur district in KP. This “self-financed” project aims to plants around one billion trees in KP. The goal is “planting and sowing 600 million and closures (where forest patches are protected from livestock and any cutting or fire so they can regenerate) 400m”. Phase 1 of the project began in 2015 and already thousands of nurseries have been set up and millions of saplings have been planted across the province.

Greening an entire province will contribute towards global climate mitigation

Phase II of the project was recently approved in early February 2016 and the cost will be Rs9826m. All this information was given to us by Raees Khan, the District Forest Officer for Haripur, where we had gone to see some of the nurseries set up by the project and meet with the local communities involved in the plantation.

The target for this year is the raising of 300m plants for planting in 2017; and the “Central Model” government nursery we visited in Nikkahpah in Haripur near the main road was full of chir pine saplings that will be ready for plantation by the monsoon season. The nursery also had kachnar saplings and oddly, eucalyptus as well which we pointed out was not a good idea since they are thirsty plants which will dry out the sub-soil water, consequently lowering the water table. “It is the demand of the communities —Eucalyptus is a very fast growing species and in five years they can have economic returns,” explained Raees Khan. The nursery has grown around 600,000 plants since it was set up last year under the “Tsunami afforestation project”.

These type of nurseries have sprung up in almost every district of KP, from Chitral to Dera Ismail Khan, we were told. “In the north we are providing chir pine and kail and walnut and in the south we are providing sheesham, phulai and eucaplytus, etc”. They are not just government nurseries; many are privately owned as well and the demand for them is increasing. “Last year no one was asking us for private nurseries and this year so many people are approaching us for private nurseries — we have far less than is the demand of the communities.” This is due to the fact that these nurseries provide good income (around Rs20,000 a month) for poor families who can sell saplings for plantation. We were told that the nearby mountains of Haripur, mostly barren but some with a few green patches, was where the plantation took place last year.

We later met with a community in the picturesque village of Karwala in the nearby mountains where a lot of plantation had taken place. The local people were quite upset, however, as the Nazim Malik Pervez of Union Council Bhagra, explained to us that “it was now the fifth month and the local people have not received any money for the plantation they carried out last year”. They were promised Rs500 per day for their daily labour and were still waiting for the payment. Raees Khan promised them that they would receive their payments within a week or so. The local community pointed out that in another two weeks the current plantation season would soon be over so if they wanted more plantations to be done, they should paid as soon as possible. They also demanded fruit and flower trees since these would provide them with additional income in this underdeveloped area of Haripur. His reply was that they could only give them walnut trees as that was all they had — the fruit and flower trees came under the agriculture department, not the forest department!

Clearly the Billion Tree Tsunami has problems on the ground — but it is a relatively new project and in time the issues will be sorted out. As the forest officer told the community in Karwala, “These trees you are planting here are for your benefit and for the benefit of your future generations — they will prevent soil erosion and increase water in your springs.” One criticism that is sound, however, is that the project ought to be for planting trees that are suitable to the local climate in each district. “They need to see which area needs what kind of plantation in terms of benefit to the local community — for example they should be promoting olive trees here in this plantation,” said Maqbool Malik from the village of Mang, another site we visited in Haripur.

So far the project involves women, senior citizens, youth and progressive farmers for setting up nurseries and the plantation is being monitored. Areas have been demarcated and measured with GPS and activity maps prepared and GPS coordinates recorded. The KP government has also enforced a complete ban on the cutting and felling of trees in its reserved forests.

At UN Climate Change Conference 2015 recently held in Paris, the project was recognised by the Bonn Challenge, which is a global partnership aiming to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by 2020. At the conference, the Khyber Pakthunkwa government pledged to restore 384,000 hectares of degraded land (by reforestation) under its “Billion tree tsunami” project — all this will be monitored by a third party. As Malik Amin Aslam, the head of the Green Growth Initiative in KP put it: “For Pakistan, this project will enhance water availability, reduce soil erosion and increase resilience against climate-induced floods. For the world, this project will sequester carbon and contribute towards global climate mitigation”.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 21st, 2016