Malik Amin Aslam Khan

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it” (Robert Swan).

Unimplemented manifestos and hollow sloganeering have been the, unfortunate, hallmarks of Pakistan politics. Being a party advocating reform and change, PTI is now endeavoring to shift this perception.

The “Green Growth Initiative” (GGI), launched and currently underway, in the province of KPK has been a step in that direction. The most obvious litmus test for any such initiative, however, lies in translating it into projects on the ground and allocating them a share out of the budgetary pie. This important step was diligently followed last year and culminated in a stream of projects one of which is the “Billion Tree Tsunami” which has been allocated sizable government funds in the ADP of 2014-15.

After going through a detailed consultation and development process, this flagship project is now clearly defining new frontiers while carving out sustainable options for growth and protection of KPK’s forests. These forests can truly be termed as the lungs of Pakistan – as they constitute 40% of the country’s forest cover. Overall, Pakistan’s forest cover is a paltry 4% of land area, which is one of the lowest in the world and much lower than the average of 35% present in environmentally healthier countries. In addition, even this meager forest cover is under threat with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

These trends are not only shockingly unacceptable but are now a direct threat to the country’s sustainable future. Owing mainly to its geography and topography, Pakistan is now considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change impacts. The melting glaciers in the north, erratic monsoon patterns and repeated ravaging floods in the past few years have been a stark reminder of the devastation and infrastructure loss this vulnerability can cost. The ever thinning forest reserve not only multiply the loss due to climate change but also weakens one of the most effective tools that Pakistan has for not only sequestering carbon but also building local resilience to the impacts of climate change.

The KPK government has now committed to not only reverse the high rate of deforestation but also shift the current philosophy from treating forests as a “revenue” machine towards preserving them as a valued “natural capital”.

For the first time in the history of Pakistan, the forest area in KPK is targeted for a major enhancement from 20% to 22% by 2018, which would entail bringing new area under forests as well as protecting and enriching the existing area. Thus, under the project, at least 30000 hectares of additional forests will be planted through a massive afforestation drive. In addition, through enrichment measures the tree cover in existing forests would be targeted for increase from 20% to 30% by 2018. This would entail protection and gap plantations in, at least, 27000 hectares each year. The above ambitious targets would be achieved through the massive 4-year “Billion Tree Tsunami” project, which is now underway.

The project has been designed with various innovative features, which are breaking new ground in KPK and aim to ensure the long-term sustainability of this drive. Under this project small-scale “eco-preneurs” are being created in the province by privatizing various facets of forest growth and protection. In this regards, firstly an innovative program for establishing “youth nurseries” has been initiated. The government is encouraging local villagers to set up small nurseries (20-25000 plants), which will have secure buy-back agreements with Forest department generating an income of between Rs 12000 to 18000 per month for the local youth –thus providing green jobs with dignity for the youth of KPK. This program is already underway and backed by a detailed village level GIS mapping done for the whole province.

Secondly, the project innovatively focuses on outsourcing new forest growth to the private sector – in addition to creating more eco-preneurs this will also ensure survival of planted forests through performance based payments spread over a three year period as the saplings turn into trees.

Thirdly, for forest protection the local communities with traditional rights have been organized into VDC’s or Village Development Communities and extended partnered ownership of the forest tracts. These traditional custodians have been extended responsibility for“forest closure” to ensure protection and enrichment of the forests. Under a partnership agreement with the Government, they will be allowed to train and hire local “Forest Nighabans” which will be financed by the government – more jobs for the youth and responsible protection of forests.

The government is also in the process of establishing rules for REDD+, an innovative global financial instrument that aims to reverse deforestation by providing cashable carbon value to standing forests. According to preliminary estimates and depending on the global carbon regime, KPK’s forests could earn in the range of $6-800 million through carbon credits from standing forests. Again the philosophy is to value and capitalize the forest not for the timber but for the environmental services it provides.

A complete ban on cutting and felling of trees in the reserved forests of KPK has already been imposed while the community forests have been subjected to scientific management based upon detailed working plans – doing away with the highly abused “windfall” policy of previous governments which was used as a tool for legalizing massive felling of trees. Finally, to ensure accountability and transparency, the project entails an independent third party monitoring regime that is being put in place using tools such as GIS monitoring and google Forest Watch, to ensure compliance with what has been committed.

The above pro-forest measures have been completed with a crackdown against the powerful “timber mafia” in KPK province which has brutally shaved off more than Rs 100 billion worth of natural forests in the past 10 years. The KPK Government has publicly vowed to arrest their activities, cut off their sources in Government, raise and strictly enforcement penalties and have a zero-tolerance policy towards their nefarious activities. Special satellite monitoring systems are also being put in place to do real time spot monitoring of KP’s natural forests and to reclaim nature from these mafias.

The “Billion Tree Tsunami” is a unique project extending a win-win opportunity for KPK, Pakistan and the world. For KPK, it is enhancing the productivity of forests while generating local environmental benefits and economic activity and green jobs for the youth. For Pakistan, this project will enhance water availability, reduction of soil erosion and increased resilience against climate-induced floods. For the world, this project will sequester carbon and contribute towards global climate mitigation.

Overall the “Green Growth” initiative of KPK, embodied by ongoing projects such as the “Billion Tree Tsunami”, aims to be the flag bearer for a green paradigm shift in Pakistan and to ensure a better quality of life to the citizens of KPK, creation of decent and clean job opportunities for the youth and a means for social uplift and poverty eradication in the province. The politics of change aims to create a paradigm shift in KP’s growth trajectory - leading to prosperity, poverty reduction and a better quality of life for the people while fulfilling the imperatives for a cleaner environment.

The writer is chairman Green Growth Task Force, Government of KPK, and former minister of state (environment).