ON Sunday, Prime Minister Imran Khan kicked off his spring tree plantation drive from the place he launched his political career many years ago: Mianwali. Planting new trees is part of the ruling party’s manifesto; it has promised a ‘10-billion tree tsunami’ to be carried out in its five-year term, and the prime minister has repeatedly brought up the priority he attaches to protecting the environment at a time when climate change, pollution and poor air quality are disrupting life and livelihoods. During his most recent trip, Mr Khan spoke about his desire to see tree plantation drives introduced in school curricula to ensure a better future. Unfortunately, destructive forces move at a far quicker pace than good intentions, and Pakistan continues to have one of the highest deforestation rates in the world — estimated to be between 0.2 pc and 0.5pc annually — due to expanding urbanisation, industrialisation, a growing population, and the continued threat from a powerful timber mafia that is often politically connected. The mafia has also been accused of using violence against environmental activists that stood in its path in the past, while authorities turned a blind eye to or abetted its ruthless ambition. For short-term gains, the long-term well-being of the environment, the many ecosystems these forests host and the livelihoods attached to them are put at stake in an exercise that can only be described as criminal, and which is rarely, if ever, prosecuted.
The prime minister has now directed his government in Punjab to come up with a strategy to counter the timber mafia in the province. His heart may be in the right place, and he may think that the arrest of those who cut down trees will be a deterrent, but unless he successfully tackles the real criminal forces head-on, his desire for creating long-lasting change will remain only that. It takes many years for a sapling to grow into a tree, and only a few minutes for a fully grown tree to be chopped down. This trend needs to be reversed.
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2020