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Rhetoric & reality

September 13, 2018

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BETWEEN April and October 2016, I was conducting a study on Chashma Right Bank Canal that runs through Dera Ismail Khan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was during the height of the frenzied and much-hyped ‘billion-tree tsunami’ by the ruling party of the province.

In May, I witnessed men planting hundreds of conocarpus and eucalyptus trees along the canal. I also saw thousands of eucalyptus trees in the stream bed of the Gambila river somewhere in the vicinity of Lakki Marwat.

Both are extraordinarily thirsty trees. A mature eucalyptus (native to Australia) can soak over 100 litres of water a day. This was determined by the very competent Dr Ashraf Bodla in 1989-90, then working for the Nuclear Institute of Agro-Biology in Faisalabad. Every eucalyptus planted on our soil is a non-stop tube well depriving us of groundwater.

The conocarpus, on the other hand, grows in several parts of the world and was imported from the UAE by Karachi’s then mayor Mustafa Kamal in 2005. This allergen-broadcasting, water-conduit destroying tree is now grown across the country in unaccountable numbers. Having discovered its malevolence, the UAE has eradicated it.

The authors and executors of the ‘billion-tree tsunami’ had no idea what they should be planting.

I believe the authors and executors of the ‘billion-tree tsunami’ had no idea what they should be planting: they were misguided by corrupt forest department officials, who knew both species survive because no grazer touches them. For foresters and politicians in a hurry to show ‘results’, this was the only way to go. I made some noise on the criminal choice of trees, but my voice was drowned out by cultists screaming: ‘We are better than you because we are at least doing something.’

To most of them, it meant nothing if this ‘doing something’ would wreak havoc upon the environment, ecology and general health of the population. It mattered nothing that conocarpus would be the next major cause of rhinitis after our love affair with paper mulberry trees imported from China to green Islamabad in the early 1960s.

And now we have another tree tsunami inflicted upon us. This time, it is ‘10 billion trees’ in five years. Let’s begin by doing the sums: the per annum figure comes to 2bn trees or just under 5.5 million trees per day! The only silver lining in this madness is that the government has broadcast a list of all the indigenous trees that will be planted. It has no mention of eucalyptus or conocarpus. That is commendable. But there are questions. Where will the daily supply of 5.5m saplings or seeds come from? And that — unfailingly — over the next five years?

In order to get anywhere near the vaunted figure, youngsters, who may not know much about ecology and can be easily misguided by corrupt forest officials and politicians, will end up planting undesirable species. The math shows that, even then, the target will escape them. Pakistan has suffered such foolishness in the past.

In the early 1980s, denuded hillsides in Swat, Bajaur and Buner were planted wholesale with eucalyptus. From a distance the trees looked like pine, but they were poison: thousands of freshwater springs dried up. Though eucalyptus eradication campaigns were undertaken in the early 2000s, the blight remains.

In Lahore, there are two nurseries (that I know of) managed by the Forest Department rearing local species. Right now, their total output will not be more than 3,000 at the most. In order to replenish, they need to prepare cuttings, which will take over six weeks to sprout — and this only between March and October. Even if there was a miraculous shower of hundreds of billions of seeds from the sky, the new plants will not be ready anytime soon.

However, the man in charge of the nursery in Green Town informed me that the department encourages rearing of conocarpus saplings too. That, he said, was being done at the nursery at Jallo. Of course, the ubiquitous eucalyptus is found at both nurseries. Putting together the total output of all the nurseries of Pakistan, it will still be impossible to raise 5.5m saplings daily over the next five years. There is no magic wand that can turn a stick into a tree. The requisite number will simply not be available.

Additionally, most native species are browsed upon by animals. Therefore even if motivated young people perform the miracle of planting, say, 100,000 trees across Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, most of these will be lost to grazers: the survival rate of indigenous species is about 15 per cent. In a word, the target of 10bn trees in five years is a pipe dream — dreamt under the influence.

The writer is Fellow of Royal Geographical Society.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2018