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A long-term forest policy

April 28, 2019

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RAPID climate change and high air-pollution levels require urgent investment in afforestation programmes in Pakistan. Deforestation is a major cause of erosion of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Forests have direct and indirect linkages with nutrition and food security via wild tree fruits and fuel wood, making them an important instrument in achieving several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The current government has initiated the ‘10 Billion Tree Tsunami’, which aims at rapid afforestation in all Pakistan’s provinces. Although it is a much-needed programme, there are concerns regarding the sustainability and long-term viability of such initiatives. This is important given that other political parties do not have a great record of preserving the environment.

The BTT needs to morph into a long-term, institutionalised forest policy that can provide maximum environmental and economic benefits in line with the SDGs. In the absence of such a policy, any change in the government setup can potentially impede the progress achieved so far towards restoring our forest areas. Three aspects are particularly crucial.

Forest conservation should feature prominently in our scientific and political discourse.

Firstly, afforestation needs to be viewed by the Pakistani voter as any other development infrastructure with clear personal and societal benefits. This can happen when an increased emphasis on urban afforestation leads to mitigation of public health crises caused by urban heat effect and air pollution. A clear improvement in air quality and reduction in pollution-induced health issues are bound to get votes in major Punjab cities, which regularly rank high on the pollution scale. This can bring environment to the centre of the political discourse. The present government should link its urban afforestation initiatives to urban air quality in order to enhance citizens’ involvement in sustaining green urban infrastructures.

Urban afforestation should be complemented by strict environmental regulations on vehicle emissions and sustainability regulations for homes, buildings and offices. Clear emission reduction and afforestation targets for each district and incentives for achieving those targets can bring about transparency and efficiency.

The added advantage of pursuing green urbanisation is that its positive impact on society is measureable through geospatial imaging and air quality indices, as well as marketable for political parties interested in urban vote banks. Improving air quality in urban centres will result in a better quality of life, lower the incidence of disease and decrease the burden on an already overtaxed healthcare system.

Secondly, an optimal forest rotation policy that ensures economic viability of forests needs to be installed, ie we need to grow, harvest and manage forests in a way that maximises their economic benefits, reduces imports of forest products and helps us leapfrog towards a sustainable bio-economy where local forests can provide wood, biofuels, bioplastics and recyclable packaging materials without increasing deforestation rates.

Monitoring our forests to prevent harvesting without a licence will contribute to this economic viability and rotation of forests. The PTI government has been effective in monitoring KP’s forests and should replicate its performance across the country.

Lastly, stronger land tenure and private incentives in the form of payment for ecosystem services for landowners need to be set up to increase conservation, forest cover, and long-term sustainability, ie private landowners should be compensated for the environmental services their forests provide. The methodology for valuation of such services in different regional contexts has been carefully studied and is readily available. Such an initiative will incentivise individual landowners to protect forest cover on their land, which means the government will not be entirely dependent on community — or forest-level monitoring.

Further, the adoption of such incentives can optimise land use over time, ie high-productivity agricultural land will continue to yield high-value crops and low-productivity land would be turned into forest cover. There are several examples of successful implementation of such initiatives. In 2000, China launched its ‘Sloped Land Conversion Programme’ which paid farmers to convert cropland on hillsides with high risk of soil erosion into forest; this led to a whopping 18 per cent (1.2pc annually) increase in forest area in China.

Similarly, the Municípios Prioritários programme in Brazil led to historic reductions in deforestation rates in the Amazon. The programme incentivised farmers to divert investment from clearing new land for agriculture to capital investments in farming; this led to an increase in agricultural productivity, suggesting that afforestation of agricultural land does not necessarily result in food-security concerns. Additionally, these programmes have also been shown to alleviate poverty by making the provision of ecosystem services economically desirable for low-income landowners.

To design and implement a long-term forest programme, forests and biodiversity conservation should feature prominently in our scientific and political discourse. The implementation of such programmes can be challenging. In some cases, a less-than-ideal implementation of such programmes led to an increase in forest cover at the expense of high-productivity agricultural land, which can result in reductions in the growth of agricultural production.

There can also be issues of financing for a country like Pakistan that is struggling to increase its tax base and decrease expenditures. However, these programmes have generally been successful at increasing forest cover, reducing carbon emissions and increasing biodiversity, leading to an overall positive impact on societal welfare. Given the urgency of the situation, finding fiscal and political space for a sustainable and profitable forest policy should be on top of the development agenda for Pakistan if we want to tackle climate change and pollution.

The writer is a postdoctoral fellow at Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet , Sweden, and assistant professor of economics at Information Technology University, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019