Terming the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) claims of planting 800 million saplings in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa “a figure too exaggerated”, the environmentalists and foresters have also questioned the capacity of the World Wildlife Fund Pakistan to accurately assess the programme.

Hence, the entire project is mired in irregularities and controversies, triggering concerns over environmental issues coupled with virtual hijacking of the project by influential figures, led by bureaucracy.

Plantation of eucalyptus much beyond its fixed limit has also raised alarm bells. 

This fact further complicates the things that in August 2016 in a communication with the federal government, the KP government claimed that they had planted 1.6 per cent trees that was 16 million under the Billion Tree Tsunami (BTT), and within seven months the figure reached 800 million, a source in the Federal Planning Ministry told The Nation.

Last year, the federal government had asked all the provinces to provide their share for the Green Pakistan Programme, but the KP government had said that they were already executing their own tree plantation plan under the BTT and had by then had planted 1.6 per cent of the targeted number of saplings, the official said.

He said that now all of a sudden the PTI leadership had announced that they had achieved 80 per cent of the targeted number of saplings.

It is miraculous and is totally unbelievable that they have planted 784 million trees in a span of seven months, the official said.

The PTI-led government has started a drive to plant a billion saplings in four phases in various districts of the KP.

The official said that the whole province was divided into 28 divisions, which included five watershed divisions and 23 territorial divisions.

Under the BTT, 600 million plants will be added through natural re-growth, while 400 million will be added through new plantation.

There is no doubt that billion tree tsunami is a good step and, if properly implemented, would increase the KP forest cover area magnificently.

However, the project was derailed by a bunch of ill-informed advisers and short-sighted KP government officials, who are focusing on quantity instead of quality, said a KP Forest Department official.

The area of KP is only 74,521 square kilometres, which is too small and 800 million new saplings mean that you can see trees all around you but unfortunately this is not the case, the official said.

Although the government claims that there are 800 million saplings added to the forest, WWF Pakistan confirms a figure of 700 million saplings.

The WWF’s capacity to conduct such monitoring in 74,521 square kilometres of area is also questionable, the official at the Federal Planning Ministry said.

They have only 12 field staff to monitor the whole province and even with modern technology it is hard to trace such a vast area, particularly the natural regeneration and new plantation, he said.

Earlier, it was planned that the number of eucalyptus will not exceed 10-20 per cent of the plantation but due to unavailability of Pine and Acacia, it was decided to increase the number of eucalyptus to about 48.5 per cent, the official said.

The question is why the PTI government decided to pick an invasive species when there were so many good native options available.

When asked the official of the KP Forest Department, who is directly involved with the process said on condition of anonymity that the answer was simple, Eucalyptus was fast growing and in order to win the next elections the PTI government probably ignored sustainability over short term results.

Similarly, it was planned that a nursery of 25,000 saplings will be allotted to unemployed youth.

However, the project was manipulated and hijacked by the provincial bureaucracy and some politically influential people, the KP Forest Department official said.

The provincial bureaucracy, particularly in the forestry, has started giving permission for setting up big nurseries to their own relatives and friends, he said.

“Nurseries with saplings of up to two million were allotted by these bureaucrats to their relatives,” the official claimed.

No Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) rules were followed in the procurement of saplings from such big nurseries, the official said.

As a result these influential people have grown only eucalyptus in their nurseries and the government was bound under the buyback agreement to purchase all the saplings, he said.

The eucalyptus sapling is the fastest growing and requires only three to four months to be ready for plantation.

Following these influential people the small nursery owners also planted eucalyptus and then no one was able to say “No” to them, the official said. He said that majority of the forest department staff was involved in the irregularities and that was why they were silent.

Even the project director was so disappointed from the malpractices in the project that he decided to quit but he was brought back, the official claimed.

If some day the NAB intervenes the BTT will become a massive corruption scandal of the present government, he said.

The official said that he had confirmed reports that 48.5 per cent of the saplings planted were eucalyptus.

When asked that why they did not protest the decision of planting eucalyptus, he said that during the first meeting of the technical committee held in April 2016, in KP House Islamabad the environment experts had expressed their concerns over massive plantation of eucalyptus.

The KP government was so upset over the criticism that since August 2017 it has not convened the technical committee meeting, the forest department official said.

The environmentalists believe that eucalyptus will cause water shortage and threaten bio-diversity, he said.

The official said that he was also astonished about the WWF’s “silence” over the plantation of such a huge number eucalyptus.

After going through the 300-page report of the WWF, I didn’t find anything discussing the negative impact of the eucalyptus on the environment, biodiversity and wildlife,” he claimed.

When asked about the survival of the plantation, an official of the WWF said, that there were three kinds of plantations one was block plantation, second was wood lot, and then free distribution to farmers.

The block plantation is in the government land, forests and mountains, the wood lots are given to people with more than on hectare of land, while in the third category plants were distributed among the farmers in free.

In the block plantation, the survival was up to 70 per cent, while to the plants distributed to the farmers the survival was as low as 10 per cent, the official said.

The project manager of the WWF for the monitoring of BTT, Kamran Khan, when asked about the capacity of his organisation said that it had biggest capacity in the whole world.

However, he said that out of the total staff of 16 involved in the project 12 were field monitors.

When asked about the accuracy of the counting procedure, he said that their monitoring result was 95 per cent accurate.

When asked why their 300-page report is silent over the negative impact of eucalyptus on the environment and biodiversity, he said that in that study their mandate was only limited to the verification of the KP government’s claims regarding the number of saplings planted/regenerated.

“We were the ones who give the exact number of the eucalyptus trees planted in the province now it’s the duty of the environmentalists and academia to play their part,” he said.

However, when contacted, Shabbir Hussain, the project director of the BTT, said that it was just propaganda that eucalyptus was dangerous.

In Australia, the US and even Israel eucalyptus is being planted, he added.

Besides, Hussain said that there were two considerations in planting trees - one was ecological and the second was economical.

As far as the government is concerned it is planting Pine and Acacia on the government-owned land, while the farmers prefer economically-beneficial eucalyptus, he said.

When asked that is it true that he wanted to leave the project, Hussain said that it was propaganda.

He said that PPRA rule did not apply to these contracts as the saplings were procured under partnership agreement with buyback agreement.

When asked what was the criterion of allotting the nurseries he said that they had advertised it in the newspapers and people had applied for the nurseries.

He however said that the number of eucalyptus plantation had never crossed 10 or 12 per cent of the total natural regeneration and new plantation.

However, Hussain said that since last one year they were procuring saplings only from the government nurseries.

He said that the success rate of the plantation was 83 to 84 per cent.

When Malik Ameen Aslam, incharge BTT, was asked about the KP government’s letter written in August 2016 to the federal government confirming planting just 16 million saplings by then, he said that “I don’t know about any such letter”.

About the authenticity of the KP government’s claim of planting 800 million saplings, he said that it was confirmed by the third party auditors.

Aslam said that 800 million saplings were planted and third party the WWF had verified the figure of 700 million.

He said that around 470 million of the total plantation was natural regeneration, while the remaining 230 million was new plantation.

The regeneration effort is being monitored by both the provincial forest department and the WWF-Pakistan, working as an auditor, he said.

Replying to a query about the percentage of eucalyptus, he said that there was no eucalyptus in the 470 million naturally regenerated plants however it was part of the 230 million new plants.

Aslam said that just 10 per cent of the total 700 million verified saplings were of eucalyptus.

When asked what the ratio of eucalyptus was, he said that it was around 70 million of the 230 million.

Aslam said that that regeneration was almost stopped in 2013 but due to good planning, of the present government, and community policing it had restarted.