With its sweeping forests, beautiful mountain ranges, and picturesque beaches, Pakistan may have once had the potential to become a popular tourist destination. However, as with many developing nations, Pakistan has struggled to maintain and preserve its environment. From locals using the rivers as a garbage disposal site to timber mafias illegally chopping down large swathes of forest and foliage, it often feels like the nation squanders its own potential. In fact, by 2016, Pakistan had only 2% forest cover due to extreme deforestation.
Deforestation happens for a wide variety of reasons, with the biggest being that many low-income people do not have access to electricity and as such, they chop down viable trees for firewood. Although most deforestation in Pakistan requires a permit, poorer provinces can be lax in the enforcement of these laws, causing illegal deforestation to run rampant in the country. The problem of these ‘timber mafias’ stretches far and wide, to the point that many suspect even former (and some current) politicians are financially invested in it. While all deforestation creates issues such as food scarcity, habitat loss, and the need to travel further distances to find fuel; in Pakistan the most pressing issue is increased soil erosion. The roots of native trees, particularly those in the mountainous Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, are crucial for holding the soil in place, serving as an anchor that stops it from getting washed away by heavy rainfall. Without the needed forest coverage, the region has become more prone to landslides, which damage roads, isolate villages, and kill hundreds of people every year. In April 2016, torrential rain triggered landslides across all of Northern Pakistan, including KPK, killing over 90 people and blocking eight sections of the Karakoram Highway. While spring showers are common in this region, multiple landslides in such a short time period were almost unheard of (especially in April, which is months away from the region’s seasonal monsoons). Experts from the Pakistan Meteorological Department of Peshawar determined deforestation was a highly likely cause for the increased frequency and severity of landslides in the area
That’s why the country’s leader has pledged to plant 10 billion new trees.
The Billion Tree Tsunami
It all started in 2016, when a new political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won a majority in KPK, often called Pakistan’s poorest province. PTI pledged to plant 1 billion trees. Province leaders gave over $150 million to the project, and by mid-2016, over 250,000 new trees had been planted. But the project had plenty of issues to overcome, even back then.
For one, opponents of PTI argued that the province did not have money to spend on such a long-term goal. Some have argued that the billion trees, while beneficial in theory, would not make a meaningful difference, as Pakistan would need over a trillion trees to replenish the forests to pre-independence (1947) levels. Beyond that, replanting the trees would not solve the slew of problems that contributed to deforestation in the first place, with the most important being the illegal logging. Along with reforestation, measures needed to be taken to dispel the ‘timber mafia’.
At first, officials hired locals as forest guards, but 10 were killed by loggers just in the pilot era of the project. To make matters worse, local officials repeatedly turned a blind eye. Everything came to a halt when PTI, under the guidance of the project leader Malik Amin Aslam, fired every single member of the forest service administration to uproot corruption and start from scratch. According to Aslam:
“It was a sign of zero tolerance, and it sent shock waves across the government.”
While this was hardly the end of the issues PTI would face, the move marked a turning point for the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ campaign. Like any environmental campaign, it still had its opponents: rival political parties, powerful individuals who profited off the ‘timber mafia’, and commercial landowners, to name a few. In spite of established opposition, the campaign also had a growing fanbase: younger, more educated Pakistanis both within and outside the nation were beginning to take note of the party’s harsh pro-environment stance, and the buzz was spreading across social media. KPK became the epicenter of a new enthusiasm of environmental activism for the country, and the ripple effect was astounding.
For many young Pakistanis, the Pakistan of their parents was not good enough. They wanted real change, and to see their country blossom into the beautiful testament to nature that they knew it always had the potential to be. And after years of disappointment and corruption, they saw people trying to bring that change. Within a few short years, the fight for an environmentally-friendly Pakistan had truly begun, complete with not only government support but also, nonprofit organizations and local reeducation efforts. Mankind was turning the tides in favor of Mother Nature.
Dispelling the ‘Timber Mafia’ For Good
Enticed youth was not the only group working towards a greener Pakistan. In poor villages where a little income makes a world of difference, the government was hard at work to provide economic incentives to encourage more environmentally-friendly practices. Green jobs sprung up all across the province, the most lucrative being the running of nurseries. The government provided seeds and pockets of space to fill, while the locals provided the soil, fertilizer, and months of grueling labor. At the end of the growing season, local people could sell all of their surviving saplings back to the government, at about Rs. 6 per sapling (roughly $0.04), and the government would then tend to them until they were of correct age to be replanted. Overall, locals made about $1060 on average from these makeshift nurseries in the first year. That may not seem like much, but in Pakistan, where the average GDP per capita is roughly $1,191 for the whole country, it was more money than villagers would ever be expected to make in one season. In addition, most of the villagers running nurseries were the local women, so not only was it a great influx of income, but it was surplus income. As Rubina Gul, a local of one of these villages, said during an interview with UNESCO:
“I’d never seen so much money in my life; my life has changed completely… My son goes to private school now.”
The economic incentive created a world of difference that not even Aslam could have predicted. Hundreds of people flocked to the newly-established nursery business. In a community-based lifestyle such as village living, seeing that the trees being planted were those of their neighbours or family members often deterred shepherds from letting their sheep or cattle graze on them-a genuine concern in KPK, where agriculture is the primary occupation. Most impressively, the government funding made the business of planting trees more lucrative than the business of cutting them down: even some ‘timber rustlers’ – locals that illegally chopped down trees to sell in the ‘timber mafia’ supply chain- now found themselves turning to the local government for advice on starting nurseries. Times were truly beginning to change.
In August 2017, PTI reached its goal of one billion trees, ahead of its intended deadline.
But the tides were not done changing yet. There was still more good fortune to be had for the country’s reforestation efforts. In July 2018, PTI made history by winning their first national election, making their leader Imran Khan the Prime Minister, and the party itself in charge of the majority of the country’s provinces. Prime Minister Imran Khan made it clear that the party still had more to do in regard to its reforestation efforts. With the election victory, PTI now had the ability to propel their reforestation efforts nationwide, and Imran Khan changed the pledge from 1 billion trees to 10 billion. At the time of writing this article, 30 million new trees have been planted in Pakistan, on top of the original 1 billion tree pledge. As for Malik Amin Aslam, he was named the official Climate Change Advisor of Pakistan, and Global Vice President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). His efforts, and the efforts of Pakistan as a whole, were recognized by the Bonn Challenge: the reforestation effort that inspired the original Billion Tree Tsunami.The Bonn Challenge aims to plant 350 million hectares by 2030, via the pledges of over 60 countries.
Naturally, the arrival of COVID-19 temporarily put reforestation efforts to a standstill.However, it seems the pandemic has had a silver lining for the program. As mass layoffs and redundancies sweep through Pakistan, many unemployed workers have found themselves joining the program and founding their own nurseries or working in government-run ones.
In fact, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has tripled the number of workers in the program, creating over 63,600 new jobs across the country. The program aims to target young people who have lost their jobs in Pakistan’s major cities and been forced to migrate back to their rural family homes. So far, it has helped keep many rural families out of absolute poverty, showing that the onset of green jobs may become a stable income for Pakistani households caught in the midst of the world’s most dire economic crisis in decades. Moreover, those working at government nurseries are being required to wear masks and practice social distancing, making these green jobs safer than many of these new employee’s previous working environments. With the reforestation efforts back on track and supporting an influx of new workers, the 10 Billion Trees campaign aims to hit a target of 50 million total trees planted by the end of 2020, and the ultimate goal of 10 billion by 2022. For Pakistan, which ranks 5th on the list of countries most affected by global warming in the last 20 years despite comparatively low fossil fuel emissions, the initiative is one of many avenues being taken to ensure a more environmentally-friendly future.
Pakistan may be a country ravaged by poverty, natural disasters, illegal acts, and most recently a pandemic, but it is also a country of immense resilience, innovative leaders, and determined youth. The initiative to reforest Pakistan has been a resounding success so far, both in replanting over 350 hectares of forest, and in providing tens of thousands of families with an additional source of income. While the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe, leading to mass unemployment and economic hardship in the short term, climate change will be the greatest challenge facing human civilisation for decades to come.
The world may need to take a page out of Pakistan’s book, and focus its efforts on incentivizing green jobs. As the effects of climate change continue to ravage our world, efforts to curb carbon emissions by planting more trees will become vital to saving the planet from a future filled with fires, floods, storms, and more disease. Pakistan serves not only as a case study as to what developing nations can do to lead the charge against deforestation, but also as a guide as to how the hope for change inspires a nation. As a young woman of proud Pakistani heritage, it is the writer’s hope that one day Pakistan will be as green as its flag, and that its people will constantly fight for a more sustainable future.