SOON after coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated his ambitious tree plantation drive with the goal of planting 10bn trees across the country during his five-year tenure. This Sunday, as part of the much-hyped “largest tree plantation drive”, which aimed to plant 3.5m saplings in a single day, the prime minister planted a sapling in Banigala in view of the cameras. Despite some questions being raised about the details of the campaign and its actual impact, the tree plantation drives have received global attention and praise, with other leaders taking up similar campaigns, and the World Economic Forum launching the One Trillion Trees Initiative. Then, on July 31, the prime minister tweeted photographs of Balloki Nature Reserve, near Sheikhupura, which turned green in a year because of the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami project. Besides their obvious benefits for the environment, the tree plantation drives have generated employment for thousands of people, and such ‘green stimulus’ packages are all the more important during a pandemic and an economic crisis. However, on the same day, a video of residents destroying saplings went viral, marring an otherwise happy occasion, in Bara, Khyber district. The men and children could be seen yanking the plants from their roots with their bare hands, or carrying shovels, while others raised black flags in protest. They chanted slogans against the ‘forceful’ intrusion into their property, which they decried as an unlawful move. When volunteers tried to intervene, they were quickly overpowered. Government representatives admitted that they had planted saplings on disputed private land, and said they had started negotiations with the residents. While many will be quick to condemn the men in the video, the authorities must take care to not alienate local populations, particularly in regions where the state may still be viewed with suspicion, and to be mindful of private land rights.

There is no doubt regarding the importance of such mass tree plantation campaigns, especially since Pakistan is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and as heavy rainfall and floods once again wreak havoc across the country, killing people and destroying property. Pakistan is also believed to have one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, and even as we plant new trees, there must be efforts to protect old and indigenous trees from being chopped down.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2020

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