Launched in 2014, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took a challenging initiative to plant a billion trees. This was in direct response to the Bonn Challenge (a global goal to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land). Simultaneously, it also reaffirmed PTIs commitment to fight against global warming. The international standard for forest cover as recommended by the UN is 12% and Pakistan has only 5% forest cover. Therefore, the initiative was aimed at addressing the fast eroding forest cover and to reach the international standards of forest cover. Criticism for the project known as ‘Billion Tree Tsunami Project’ abounds. However, the benefits of increased forest cover cannot be denied.
It is an indisputable fact that forests help maintaining healthy ecosystem. It provides shelter for animals, soil and water conservation services and clean air. Forests prevent desertification and degradation of land. Trees help in climate change mitigation as they are natural carbon sinks. Perhaps one of the most evident factor regarding the importance of forests is that their significance has also been highlighted as per our SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).
The SDGs are our sustainable road map and 17 SDGs have so far adopted by all UN member states who are striving to achieve them by 2030. As per SDG 15, the aim is to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Forest management and prevention of forest degradation have been clearly outlined within this SDG.
Therefore, 169-million-dollar project was also in-line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda. In fact, Pakistan reached its goal (in August 2017) of a billion trees ahead of schedule and became one of the first countries to achieve its goal under the Bonn Challenge. The project was essentially two-fold and concentrated on plantation as well as regeneration. The aim of the project was 550 million tree saplings planted in two phases and the remaining 450 million saplings were to be naturally generated in forest enclosures. Plant species to be planted included oleander, Aeasia Arabia, chir pine, walnut, ziziphus, Palosa, Shisham, eucalyptus.
According to an IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) article, the initiative is a resounding success. Planted trees are reinforcing riparian embankments in important catchment areas, including along the banks of the Indus, Kunhar and Swat rivers. The project has also added tree resources to agricultural lands currently engaged in farm forestry, improved biodiversity by restoring wildlife shelters and will contribute to CO₂ sequestration through new tree plantations. 13,000 private tree nurseries have been established, which in turn enhanced local incomes, generated thousands of green jobs, and empowered unemployed youth of the province. Approximately 500,000 green jobs have been created and given to women of KPK.
Inger Anderseon, DG of IUCN has stated, “IUCN congratulates the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on reaching this momentous milestone. The Billion Tree Tsunami initiative is a true conservation success story, one that further demonstrates Pakistan’s leadership role in the international restoration effort and continued commitment to the Bonn Challenge,”.
However, despite such international backing and undisputable benefits, the project has come under a significant amount of censure. Some environmentalists have stated that the wrong species are being planted in the wrong areas. Plant enclosure for plant regeneration is causing issues in terms of land tenure. Many landowners have taken their land from tenants and entered into five-year plantation agreements with the government. Social inequality is increasing due to the Billion Tree Tsunami Project. One such example is of Amir (name changed) who used to be a goat herder. In 2015, their landowner contracted with forest department for plantation. Amir and his father were told they could no longer graze their goats on this land. They tried to get land from other people but land was becoming scarce as more and more landowners were contracting with the forest Department. These landowners have entered into contracts with the intent to obtain free tree plantation on their land. Once the five-year contract expires, it is forecasted that these landowners will cut down the trees for their own financial benefits i.e. timber, fuel, wood-products.
Therefore, the Billion Tree Tsunami project is not completely faultless. As it was the first of its kind of initiative in Pakistan, the negative aspects should be taken into consideration and an attempt at rectification for ten billion tree tsunami project should be made. The ambitious ‘Ten Billion Tree Tsunami’ project has built upon the success of its predecessor in an ambitious gambit to replicate the original projects success throughout Pakistan. To prevent past adverse social impacts from being repeated, the government can put a cap on the types of trees being planted in specific areas. The government can also put a condition on landowners so that they do not cut off the trees after the five-year plantation contract expires. Additionally, the ‘green’ jobs created through this project should give preference to hiring of those individuals that might have lost their livelihood opportunities due to landowners entering into contracts with the government. It is also pertinent to mention that people like Amir may have lost one means of livelihood but due to creation of ‘green’ jobs, new opportunities for employment also simultaneously opens up. Awareness campaigns for these new jobs in established nurseries etc. should also be put into action.
The Billion Tree Tsunami project garnered international recognition and has been deemed a positive endeavor on behalf of PTI government. Any new endeavor is not without unintended drawbacks but analysts can learn from past mistakes. It is still too soon to ascertain whether the project will have long-term benefits for the country’s climate as the trees are still saplings. Concrete research shows that afforestation is always beneficial for a region in tackling climate change which is why this initiative was spearheaded by PTI in the first place. It might be idealistic but let us hope that when the Billion Tree Project is revisited in ten or fifteen years’ time, it will be found that the project most positively had long-term beneficial impacts socially, economically and environmentally.