As part of the United Nations collaborative planning on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) a new mechanism has been initiated that involves paying cash credit to developing countries that protect forests and the carbon stored within them. Pakistan can earn between $400 million up to $4 billion per year simply by saving forests. A meeting in Geneva next month will choose only 3 out of 12 competing developing countries to be the recipients of this funding. Pakistan should be making a move to protect its forests regardless of the decision in Geneva.

Between 1990 and 2005, Pakistan lost 24.7% of its forest cover (about 625,000 hectares) to the land mafia, for expansion of farmland, over grazing, fuel in rural villages, to climate change and so on. The country has subsequently lost 14.7% of its forest and woodland habitat, i.e. the important ecosystems required for its crucial biodiversity.

Bio-diversity is all the more important to ensure the proper and safe functioning of the fragile ecosystem. A large number of plant species also means greater variety of crops. Diversity makes the area all the more resilient to natural disasters as well. The current rate of deforestation means 3.5% endemic (meaning found nowhere else in the world) animal species and 7.5% endemic plant species are under critical threat.

Pakistan’s forests are subject to land mafia and large companies’ eyes for profit making ventures. One such examples is Pakistan Tobacco Company, which uses 6,300 tons of fuel wood to cure tobacco. Though they have a corporate social responsibility venture where they provide funding and saplings for plantations that benefit farmers, they do not keep in line with ecology as they provide the water sucking eucalyptus trees (safeda) among others and plant these trees on privately owned land. The land mafia has expanded its land grabbing up to our precious galiyat (hill stations), felling large areas of trees to make way for egregious apartment complexes, housing societies, hotels and other business ventures. Ayubia National Park too is under threat because of increasing population and local tourism expansion.

A single tree can absorb up to 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year from the air and purify it for humans to breathe cleaner air. By the time it reaches 40 years, it would have sequestered 1 ton of Co2. The carbon is stored within the tree as well as within the soil - by a fungus called mycorrhizal that occurs in the soil of old growth forests. The world’s forests store more than 650 billion tonnes of carbon. This makes forests important carbon sinks that cater to the natural carbon cycle which then sustains the earth’s natural climate i.e keeping it from freezing or overheating. However, since the onset of the industrial revolution, this equilibrium has been fractured. What we don’t realise is that when we chop down a tree, it releases all its stored carbon back into the atmosphere – adding to greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately, climate change. According to UN studies, deforestation causes up to 17% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Forests preservation is also crucially important to the natives of the area and thus a crucial benefactor to the poor. A 2008 study on Ecology and Society conducted a spatial analysis and indicated a positive co-relationship between high forest cover and high poverty rate. What might this say about the villages nearest to or living within our forests?

Not only do these forests provide important goods and services but other ecosystem services. They prevent flash floods such as those occurred in Hunza, Gilgit & Chitral Valleys and Peshawar early this year. This they do by holding the soil together and preventing landslides, as well as keeping water tables in check during heavy monsoons.

Thar Pakkar has been experiencing an elongated drought for the past three years. It has claimed 185 lives (according to official figures though it is estimated to be greater than 200) in the beginning of January 2016. Transpiration (the exchange of water between trees and the air) brings much required annual rainfall, the loss of Pakistan’s forest cover could be a reason the area is not having its 250mm annual rainfall. The world’s dry lands are inhabited by more than 2 billion people who suffer from some of the world’s lowest levels of human wellbeing and highest incidences of poverty. These dry lands are greatly susceptible to increased global warming. Increasing temperatures and increased drought could result in the complete desertification of these lands.

We must not forget the important wetland forests i.e mangroves. Along our coastline, these forests are ecologically important for fisheries (providing nurseries during breeding season), for checking water salinity in surrounding areas and for preventing storm surges. Mangroves possess the capacity to absorb the energy from powerful storms that then protects coastal regions from great devastation.

Old growth forests have greater carbon stored than that of new growth forests. New growth forests, however, are better at sequestering carbon than old growth forests – old growth does act as carbon sinks however at a slower rate. At a time when our greenhouse gas emissions have increased manifold in the past decade, it is time for Pakistan to start planting new trees. This is not to say we start blindly planting trees such as initiated by Imran Khan’s tree tsunami campaign. We must plant trees in an ecologically sound way. Meaning in each region only those trees must be planted that suit the area. These are 1) littoral and swamp forests, 2) tropical dry deciduous forests, 3) tropical thorn forests, 4) sub-tropical broad leaved evergreen forests, 5) sub-tropical pine forests, 6) Himalayan moist temperate forests, 7) Himalayan dry temperate forests 8) sub alpine forests and 9) alpine scrub. WWF-Pakistan and other NGOs could take on the initiative and provide the needed education to the rural areas.

As specified in a 2007 Sustainable Forest Management Study, companies such as Pakistan Tobacco need to enter into partnership with the Forest Department to benefit afforestation efforts and to protect key areas. A heavy tax on timber sales could limit cutting down trees by decreasing demand. Integrated approaches need to be undertaken for land-management where all stakeholders (including local communities and individual landowners) get to hold a dialogue and work towards specific objectives. Management and intervention strategies through public private partnerships need to be undertaken to decrease vulnerability of forests and by extension the people to climate change. This can be done through reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation; enhancing forest carbon sinks; and product substitution.

Should Pakistan not receive the REDD funding it won’t be a complete loss, because funds are already flowing into the developing world when Britain, Germany and Norway pledged $5 billion for forest conservation in poor countries through 2020, and challenged other rich countries to step up. Experts are currently saying that perhaps $10 billion a year is flowing into forest conservation worldwide. Pakistan should take advantage of this support. We need to realise that forest protection is all the more important, because no amount economic prosperity will save it us from ecological loss, and any efforts to remediate ecological loss will cost much more than any economic gain.