The idea of carbon offsetting and environmental economics from forests was first introduced at a time when the echo of Clean Development Mechanism was high. It got suppressed with time due to lack of flexibility in CDM projects. According to the new declaration titled Forests for Climate, propelled during the COP24, forests are an asset to deal with the erratic climate change and weather patterns. Carbon markets are a component of national and international attempts to mitigate the growth in concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Furthermore, declaration indicated the signs of using forests for carbon offsetting to promote the reduction in emissions.

In a similar context, the government has started a number of green projects recently. However, starting them was not enough, taking them seriously is more important. These green projects are already facing problems, some are facing survival problems and some are facing constant change of irrational scope. For instance, scope of green Pakistan Project has changed number of times with its budget increased many folds. The government still has not gotten the progress of the Green Pakistan Project validated by a third party for an independent perspective on the environment programme. On January 8, the Green Pakistan Project (GPP) National Project Director (NPD) Ibrahim Khan had notified a committee which was supposed to select a consulting firm until the completion of activity, third party validation, documentation and dissemination of GPP activities and best-practices for the programme.

Likewise, same idea was propagated by the South Punjab Forest Company two years back. But unfortunately, this company, which is a pioneer in commercial afforestation and promoting climate change solutions, is facing sustainability issues due to irrational objections of the status quo.

Some of the public sector companies filed their replies before the Lahore High Court, defending their establishment and rejecting the charges of corruption levelled in petitions taken up by the honourable court about legal status of 56 such companies. Their replies state the companies had been duly established under the Companies Ordinance of 1984 by the provincial government. More specifically SPFC, was following all corporate compliance and governance procedures and requirements under the statutory provisions of the Companies Act, 2017 and the subordinate legislations Public Sector Companies (Corporate Governance) Rules 2013 including statutory audit.

So, it is imperative to segregate 56 companies while deciding about their fate. Those who are questioning transparency of the companies should not tar them with the same brush. For instance, South Punjab Forest Company (SPFC) is the only company with most transparent bidding process and zero audit para. Furthermore, market acceptance of this project was high with maximum output from national and international investors.

The SPFC is intended to utilise the abandoned government land for forestation by involving private investors. This initiative will bring socioeconomic benefit with persistent GDP growth, environmental sustainability and increased forest cover. India and China have already increased their forest cover by 35% and 45 % respectively. Why should Pakistan, which is already facing scarcity of resources and climate change issues, not follow suit? The tree plantation campaigns in Punjab are facing serious disruption mainly due to the flawed political approach of the ruling PTI. And this is happening despite the demonstrated conviction of PTI Government for Green Pakistan programme launched on its successes in KPK during the last four years. This is so ironic that government is shutting down a initiative which is already working on the same lines of Green Pakistan Programme- its budget has been increased from 1 billion to the 32 billion – while not considering the annihilation of millions of dollars already invested.

To make the things less politicised, new government shouldn’t landmark project from the previous government just because of some political grudge. People are expecting the same approach from the PTI government in Punjab which was witnessed in KPK. But instead a landmark project has been under hold for uncertain reasons. This questions the sincerity and seriousness of the new PTI government that was supposed to work above party lines on issues that are directly relevant to the masses.

To kick start the tree plantations in Punjab, the PML (N) government set up the South Punjab Forest Company under Companies Act, 2017. SPFC was allotted 134,995 acres of land by the Punjab Forest department after necessary approvals from the Government of Punjab. In the first phase of bidding, 124 projects (measuring 61,751 acres) were allotted to bidders through an open and transparent bidding process.

The idea is to plant over 40 million trees on barren land of South Punjab under PPP model where the entire investment stream is coming from the local and foreign sources spread over a period of 15 years. Besides this, investors are liable to an average of 36 % share of these trees to the government of Punjab through SPFC under PPP bidding rules, yielding estimated income of over Rs. 20 billion to the government with zero investment. Plus it also includes a circulation of around Rs. 24 billion in the economy by the private investors.

It is a win-win partnership for SPFC & the Punjab government. The noteworthy point here is that over 40 lots/blocks were won by the overseas Pakistanis with investment of $ 90 million. It’s another irony that the present government, which has made a pitched case to attract foreign investment, is leaving the same investors frustrated and let down due to pointless delays and unending ongoing reviews on the policy despite the fact that concession agreements had already been signed by dozens of foreign investors.

SPFC has established its transparency in the financial dealings as the Auditor General of Pakistan didn’t raise event a single audit para since its inception, giving the company a clean chit. The other apprehensions made on this project were that the PML-N awarded the bidding on the basis of nepotism. This thinking is irrational as investors bid for only 124 out of a total 189 blocks offered. All the bids were opened in the presence of all bidders with the result that both winners and losers were satisfied with the transparency of the process. The other factor is that if this land was bid out with some partiality, then why bidders bid for 60% of the offered land and no bid was received for the remaining 40% of the offered land. Another thing to be kept in mind was the double increase in the government share from 15% to minimum 36% due to rigorous competitive bidding process, which shows the transparency and compliance with the merit.

Secondly, it belies the logic that a government, which is offering some of its plummet urban properties for sale and leases to cut costs and raise revenue, is more interested in reversing the concession Agreements of Barren Lands. This, it is doing despite the fact that it is not spending a dime as 100% project investments are coming from investors and it is also making a profit of over Rs. 20 billion in addition to other major benefit of clean climate for all Pakistanis to breathe. Furthermore, this project alone will create more than 15000 green jobs besides offsetting 35 million tons of Carbon Dioxide (CO2.)

In a nutshell, the present government should continue with the afforestation through SPFC while making sure that the Forest department assists natural regeneration of existing forests as was done in the KPK. Given the important role forests play in facilitating sustainability, yet observing their decline, it is not surprising that a policy-based research agenda is desirable for adequate regulations to sustain them. To do so, we must identify the barriers in the way of developing this agenda. The current forest management policies, local and potentially diverse, are difficult to analyze given a lack of support for their assessment and a limited approach to their study. Overall, this leads to an inability to offer policy recommendations, or at worst, misguided policy prescriptions are likely to be offered.

 

The writer is an environmentalist with M. Phil degree from LSE works at South Punjab Forest Company.

 ifrahshoukat@gmail.com

@ifrahshaukat28