SAVING SINDH’S TREES OF LIFE

Published April 11, 2021
Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

“Trees exhale for us so that we can inhale them to stay alive. Can we ever forget that? Let us love trees with every breath we take until we perish.”
― Munia Khan, poet, writer, editor

Trees sustain life. They give us the air we breathe; the shade we sit under. But many trees do a lot more than just that. The Indus Delta’s mangrove forest ecosystem, for example, supports various life forms. These dense trees, that protect us from storms, cyclones and tsunamis, are also home to different kinds of marine life including fish, shrimp and crabs, and several species of birds such as pelicans, flamingoes, kingfishers, cranes and even ducks. The trees also serve as the feeding grounds for tropical birds that feed on the fish, insects and plankton along the mangroves.

Yet, the story of the mangrove cover around Pakistan’s coast, particularly the coast of Sindh, has been a sad one until now. A report titled ‘Mangroves of Pakistan: Status and Management’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) quotes a 1966 study that found that 249,486 hectares in the Indus Delta were occupied by mangroves. In the early 1980s, estimates of mangrove coverage ranged from about 250,000 to 283,000 hectares, the IUCN report says. But in the early 1990s, this number fell to approximately 160,000 hectares. “The reductions in silt and freshwater flows from the river Indus have made the environment much harsher for the mangroves,” the report continues.

The reduction in fresh water flowing downstream of Kotri began after the construction of dams and barrages. Indeed, the bureaucracy’s unwillingness to understand the importance of mangroves contributed to the decline of the forests. Many bureaucrats continue to consider any fresh water flowing into the sea — essential for mangrove forests — as simply wasted water.

Many writers, researchers, activists and journalists have utilised sheets upon sheets of paper to bring to light how trees are being cut for wood (the irony), and how the mangroves are vanishing, as the desire to ‘create’ land trumps the will to protect the inhabitants of said land. One example of this is the contentious KPT Housing Society, for which 250 acres of land, where mangroves once stood, were ‘reclaimed’.

The provincial government has been publicising a ‘gift’ of over one billion mangrove trees for the people of Sindh. But local fisherfolk communities and many environmental activists remain sceptical of the mangrove plantation initiatives and the promises that come with them. Can all the stakeholders work together towards a greener future?

The history of the mangroves conflict has also been a violent one, depending on who is telling it. In 2011, two environmental activists, Haji Abu Bakar and Abdul Ghani, were allegedly ‘drowned’ in Kakapir village by ‘land grabbers’. A decade later, Abu Bakar and Ghani’s colleagues at the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) maintain that the men had started an awareness raising movement against the illegal cutting down of mangrove trees by the land grabbers, before they met their unfortunate fate.

The colleagues of the departed say that the men were kidnapped, tied and wrapped in fishing nets, and thrown into the sea. Fishermen are the best of swimmers, the late fisherfolks’ friends say, but with limbs tied and weights pulling them to the depths of the ocean, the men did not have a chance. The police’s findings did not align with the fisherfolks’ version of events. The investigation concluded that the men had drowned. “But fishermen do not drown easily,” PFF chairman Mohammad Ali Shah says. “Even our children can teach you how to swim.”

The fishermen say that Abu Bakar and Ghani’s dead bodies served as a warning to all those who had anything to say about the destruction of the mangroves for several years to come. They appear to have succeeded to some extent. Many in the fisherfolk community still speak about fear of the ‘mangrove mafia’, the ‘timber mafia’ and the ‘land mafia’.

Meanwhile, according to these fisherfolk, these ‘mafias’ have continued to operate, albeit a bit more carefully. Over time, they’ve gotten better at not getting caught, the men observe. The fisherfolk allege that the various ‘mafias’ leave the trees in the front intact and cut the trees hidden from sight. They maintain the illusion of the mangroves standing tall but, in reality, the forests are hollow. The trees at the front are not enough to provide protection against sea storms, the fisherfolk allege; this facade is only protecting the handiwork of thieves.

SEEING GREEN

Forest Minister Nasir Hussain Shah visits Keti Bunder | Courtesy Sindh Forest Ministry
Forest Minister Nasir Hussain Shah visits Keti Bunder | Courtesy Sindh Forest Ministry

The growing concerns regarding the mangroves have not gone unnoticed by the government. The Sindh Government has, time and again, focused on mangrove protection and plantation drives, setting multiple world records for planting trees. Recently, they announced another ambitious number when they promised the citizens of the province, “A gift of over one billion mangrove trees for the people of Sindh.”

According to the provincial government’s rehabilitation plans for the Indus Delta mangroves, 200,000 hectares of mangroves will be planted in the coming five years, in order to enhance the carbon pool in the delta. Further plans include taking this number to two billion. It is estimated that this will lead to eight million days of work, generating some 400 jobs for local coastal developers, who will also be provided with community incentives and benefits such as education, health and alternate energy facilities.

In the early 1980s, estimates of mangrove coverage ranged from about 250,000 to 283,000 hectares, the IUCN report says. But in the early 1990s, this number fell to approximately 160,000 hectares.

During the summers last year, Sindh’s Minister for Forests, Information and Local Government, Syed Nasir Hussain Shah, had said that the trees which were planted in different coastal areas of Sindh were computerised for the first time in the history of the country. This would make it easier to keep track of them and monitor their progress.

Nearly a year later, he and his department appear committed to make Sindh greener.

He disagrees with the notion that those involved in the cutting of mangrove trees are not brought to justice. “It is not right to say that they are not caught or punished. They are,” Minister Shah tells Eos, adding that the offenders are caught, punished and fined.

“But they are not murderers, after all, and cannot be treated like criminals who get Section 302,” he says. “They will be released after getting a warning and paying fines. That is how it works. That is how such criminals are discouraged.”

The minister’s department is set on imagining a better future. An ad from a few months ago, announcing the one billion+ mangrove trees stated: “Sindh ki khush’hali, har taraf haryali [Sindh’s prosperity, greenery everywhere].”

But while the fisherfolk welcome these initiatives, they still continue to be sceptical. They, and those before them, have seen many promising programmes get introduced and fail in the past.

THE FISHERFOLK AND THE MANGROVES

The thinning mangroves of Sindh | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
The thinning mangroves of Sindh | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

According to a report the IUCN report, even though there is no “authentic record” regarding the use of mangroves in “Indo-Pakistan”, the traditional methods still being employed “prove that the mangrove ecosystem was used extensively in earlier days.”

Mangrove systems, the report adds, play an important role as nurseries and a partial source of food for a number of commercially important fishes and other organisms. The report suggests that the fisherfolk community “even in the earlier days, empirically knew the utility of mangrove swamps.” So, the relationship of the fisherfolk and the mangroves predates even the creation of Pakistan.

Younus Khaskheli, an activist and fisherman, agrees. “These mangroves provided several fisherfolk with livelihood,” he tells Eos. “The indigenous fisherfolk led a far better life before Partition.” Aside from deep-sea trawling by industrial boats, which depleted fish stocks, the destruction of the mangroves also impacted shrimp catches since the forests are where many of these crustaceans breed.

Khaskheli says that fisherfolk love and respect nature. “We don’t just work for ourselves, we work for marine life too,” he says. “We want to see it thrive and prosper as this also means the thriving of our ecosystem.”

Fisherfolk are among the most vocal communities every time the natural ecology of the region is under threat. They were again at the forefront of the protests when Bundal and Buddu, twin islands along Karachi’s coast, caught the eyes of some investors. The plans have since been scrutinised at great length, thanks in part to the voices that brought attention to the issue.

"From 2008 to 2020, the Sindh Government has planted and protected 1.172 billion trees," he says. "Three Guinness World records in 2009, 2013 and 2018 were achieved for planting a maximum number of trees or saplings in one day, through 300 volunteers."

“As the fishermen raised a lot of hue and cry about what was happening as there were plans of creating two new modern cities on the islands, some of us environmental activists also approached the court,” says Yasir Husain, an environmental activist. “[The islands] are a part of the Indus Delta, which has some 300 small islands. But, somehow, [they] were not being considered a part of the delta, even though their coordinates show that they very much are. That also made them a part of the protected mangrove forest,” he says.

The mangroves of the Indus Delta were declared a protected forest by the British back in 1923, he says. The mangrove areas under the control of the Sindh Forest Department and Port Qasim Authority are also ‘protected forests’. And yet, Husain adds, the industrial area, economic zone and coal power plants are also inside that delta and the protected forest area, a contradiction in terms.

Even as the Forest Department in Sindh works towards the conservation and rehabilitation of the Indus Delta, environmental activists fear that the department may be dwarfed in front of the influential, who are still eyeing this area and may return for it at another time.

BURNING QUESTIONS

Mohammad Ali Shah, chairman PFF, fondly remembers the time when he was growing up in Ibrahim Hyderi, the fishing village just off the coast of Karachi. Even if a coin dropped into the waters by the shore here, he recalls, it remained visible and could be easily retrieved from the clear waters. “But now, whatever goes in, is gone forever. You cannot see anything except dirty murky water,” he says.

An environmentalist at heart, he welcomes the mangrove plantation, but also points out that it is made possible, at least in part, by global “carbon trading” mechanisms.

According to a BBC article tilted, ‘Carbon trading: How does it work?’, carbon trading is a “market-based system aimed at reducing greenhouse gases” that contribute to the rise of climate change. “There have been attempts to allow richer countries to cut their emissions by paying for the development of carbon-lowering schemes in poorer nations,” the article adds. “However, the effectiveness of these schemes has been questioned, with research indicating that some have created more emissions than they have actually curtailed.”

Shah certainly finds the practice questionable himself. “So you commit murder somewhere and then pay blood money somewhere else,” he puts it in simple words with a chuckle. “All this good you see happening for the mangroves is a part of this. There is a five-year agreement here with some multinational companies of Australia and the UK for the planting of mangroves to absorb tonnes of carbon from this part of the world, as these companies emit it in some other part,” he says.

Shah has many questions. “Does the government even have as much land as it has agreed to plant the mangrove saplings on?” “Are the fisherfolk going to be displaced to make room for the new mangrove forests?” “What happens after the saplings have been planted and the international monitoring teams have filed their reports and left? Will the mangroves be neglected again and be left to ruin?” “What kind of checks and balances are there for the timber mafia and the land mafia?”

Many of these questions can be answered. Indeed, some have even been answered by government representatives in the past. But the plethora of questions simply indicates one thing: the community does not trust these initiatives.

THE OTHER SIDE

The ‘timber mafia’ at work | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
The ‘timber mafia’ at work | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah agrees that carbon trading has helped the government work on the rehabilitation of mangroves. “The carbon credit funding will be utilised to protect the existing mangrove forests too, besides developing more mangrove forests during the next five years,” he says.

“We are looking at developing a huge carbon pool in the range of 500 million tonnes of [offset of] CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalent, i.e. greenhouse gases] and maintaining it to reduce global warming,” he adds.

Minister Shah has a much more positive outlook on carbon trading. “It is a little like the countries or companies that emit more greenhouse gases than their limit are paying for it by helping our nature in the form of carbon trading. Sooner or later, they will also get tired of paying these fines in the shape of permits, and start controlling their [own] carbon emissions,” he says.

When asked about the fisherfolk’s fears that the government’s motivation to monitor the trees will diminish after the plantation drives, the minister smiles. He reminds me that his political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, has placed a special emphasis on the rehabilitation of mangroves in the Indus Delta since 2008. During these 12 years, he says, more than 210,000 hectares have already been planted. “And work on the biggest task involved — planting about 40,000 hectares — started in July 2018, making ours one of the leading efforts of restoration of forests in the world,” he claims.

“From 2008 to 2020, the Sindh Government has planted and protected 1.172 billion trees,” he says. “Three Guinness World records in 2009, 2013 and 2018 were achieved for planting a maximum number of trees or saplings in one day, through 300 volunteers.” He says that, in 2009, Pakistan broke the Indian record of 450,000 by planting 541,176 plants at Keti Bundar. Then India beat that record by planting 650,000 plants. The Sindh Forest Department broke that record again by planting 847,250 plants in one day in 2013 at Kharo Chaan Thatta. “And we, again, improved our own record in 2018 by planting 1,129,294 near Juho Thatta district,” he says.

“Throughout this, a huge carbon pool in the range of 200 to 300 million tonnes of CO2e has been developed, and it is building up regularly,” he says.

Then he comes to a major talking point regarding the mangrove plantation drives: that they are not only important sources of marine life, but livelihood. “Through this effort, about four million days of work has already been provided to the local coastal dwellers,” he says. “It has meant about 200 jobs to local households. Community incentives such as education and health facilities are being strengthened in creek areas. The entire amount of the carbon credit sale in the international market will be diverted to the welfare of poor local people.”

WWF-Pakistan’s Dr Rasheed says that, as part of a mangrove conservation initiative in collaboration with the Sindh Forest Department, the organisation is currently working with mangrove-dependent communities in 17 villages in the Indus Delta.

When asked about the green jobs said to come with the project, Federal Minister Malik Amin Aslam, who also serves as an adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Climate Change, along with wearing the hat of vice president of IUCN, says that they are already paying up to 20,000 rupees a month to those planting the saplings. This is not happening in Sindh alone, he says. “There is also the example of Balochistan, where camels were destroying the mangrove saplings,” he tells Eos. “We engaged women there to stop the camels. Then [the women] asked us for sewing machines, which we happily supplied to their community. It has turned into a successful model.”

Regarding the green jobs, Minister Nasir Hussain Shah, also adds that they start from the people who plant the saplings. “Although mangrove saplings can be planted at any time, their peak season is two times in the year. The first started in March, and the second will be in August.”

Federal Minister Aslam also gives credit to the environment conservation and protection agencies. “The implementation work of the project lies with the province,” he says. “The NGOs and the Forest Department have all contributed towards a 300 percent increase in mangroves in the last 20 years.”

WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES

A fisherman manoeuvering his boat along mangrove swamps in Karachi | AFP
A fisherman manoeuvering his boat along mangrove swamps in Karachi | AFP

Meanwhile, many in the fisherfolk community claim that the mangrove cover increase is being reported inaccurately. But while they are sceptical of the efforts of the government, they are more trusting of non-governmental organisations, such as IUCN and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

WWF-Pakistan’s Director in Sindh and Balochistan, Dr Tahir Rasheed, says that the organisation has been working on mangrove conservation for well over two decades now. “Our work on mangroves in the Indus Delta and beyond integrates research, inclusive conservation and addresses the poverty-environment nexuses in addressing coastal climate vulnerability,” he says.

He adds that WWF-Pakistan gives “prime importance to community engagement and acknowledges the role of gender, their vulnerabilities and effective engagement in addressing climate vulnerability, developing climate resilience as well as the adoption of alternate and improved nature-linked livelihood support systems.

“Our work includes strengthening community participation,” he says. “We help communities organise themselves and build their capacities. We also provide them with alternate opportunities of livelihood-generation as well as fuelwood sources, to reduce their dependence on natural resources.”

It is perhaps this effort at community engagement that has resulted in the NGO sector being more successful at winning the trust of the fisherfolk. The good news is that WWF-Pakistan is also working with the government for mangrove conservation.

Dr Rasheed says that, as part of a mangrove conservation initiative in collaboration with the Sindh Forest Department, the organisation is currently working with mangrove-dependent communities in 17 villages in the Indus Delta. The aim is, he says, “integrated conservation of mangroves, while providing alternate livelihood opportunities to mangroves-dependent communities.

“We are aiming to co-manage 14,000 hectares of mangroves in the Indus Delta,” he adds. “Of these, about 7,000 hectares are intact mangroves and are being protected against unsustainable uses, whereas 4,000 hectares of degraded mangroves are restocked and upgraded, and 3,000 hectares are being reforested.”

Minister Shah also stresses that the government is working with the communities and wants to continue doing so. He adds that the credit money from the carbon credit sale is to be used to uplift the fisherfolk community. “All the funds are to be used in laying lines for sweet water [so it may reach] where it does not reach anymore,” he says. “Also for building hospitals and schools, the work at which will be handled by the community, hence [creating] more jobs [for them].”

He says the fisherfolks’ villages will neither be disturbed nor would they be uprooted to make way for mangrove plantation. “There is enough land for planting the trees,” he says. “Why would we hurt the villages when we are looking to engage the fisherfolk community itself in order to make the project successful? All this is going to be used for their benefit and the benefit of the environment. They are both interlinked.”

With cautious optimism, one hopes that the fisherfolk and environmental activists, the protection and conservation NGOs and the government may see that they all share a common goal: planting and protecting mangroves for the benefit of the environment and the people. A little bit of trust and faith would go a long way in making the mangrove plantation and protection initiatives successful.

With the world fighting the impact of climate change, now is clearly the time for all the stakeholders to come together. Only then will they be able to turn over a new leaf and set down roots for the tough battle ahead.


The writer is a member of staff.

She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, *EOS, April 11th, 2021*

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