Connect to share and comment

Saving Pakistan's environment, a tree at a time

As loggers continue to clear forests, the government has developed an obsession with tree-planting campaigns.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan has more than its fair share of pressing challenges to deal with, from rising religious fundamentalism to chronic water shortages and crippling power cuts, but it just added another item to its laundry list of urgent priorities: disappearing forests.

Pakistan has few forests to begin with, and they’re vanishing fast. The country has lost a quarter of its natural forest cover over the past two decades and is currently experiencing a deforestation rate of 2 percent a year — one of the highest in the world.

The causes for the environmental disaster are multiple; illegal logging and clearing of forested lands for agriculture are only the main ones. Lack of political will has also played a major role, but that seems to be changing, observers say.

The government is moving closer to enacting a new National Forest Policy, the first such document in almost 20 years, and Pakistan’s Ministry of Environment just launched its Pakistan Forest Program — a 15-year plan to conserve and improve the country’s forests designed by the World Wide Fund For Nature — Pakistan in collaboration with government departments.

“It is a challenge to us to enhance the forest cover of Pakistan and conserve our natural forests,” Environment Minister Hameed UllahJan Afridi said at the program’s launch last month. “We shall not look at forest as a source of timber and revenue. Rather we should give more attention to forest protection because of its services as watershed, carbon sink, protection from natural disasters and soil erosion control.”

Much of Pakistan is arid or semi-arid and not suitable to forests, but the country’s extreme geography — from the Indian Ocean to the world’s second-highest peak, the K2 — means that it is home to a wide variety of environments ranging from mangroves in the south to pine forests in the north.

Forests represent a tiny fraction of Pakistan’s area, but exactly how tiny is a source of debate. The government says about 5 percent of Pakistan is covered with forests, but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says forests only amount to about 2.5 percent of the country’s total area.

The reason for the discrepancy is that Pakistan only counts as forests the areas under the jurisdiction of provincial forest departments, said Babar Shahbaz, a lecturer at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad who has researched forest conservation and policy extensively.

“There are many areas that have not a single tree, but they are called 'forests' because they are under the control of the forest departments,” he said.

Pakistan has long been concerned by the disappearance of its forests. In fact, virtually every incoming government endeavored to design its own forest policy. What most forest policies had in common was that they failed to take into account the populations that drew their livelihood from forests and had therefore a vested interest in conserving them. One policy even recommended that people be moved away from deforested hills to allow the vegetation to grow back.

One of the most damaging government decisions, though, came in the wake of the 1992 floods, which caused the death of hundreds of Pakistanis and the evacuation of millions. The lack of forest cover exacerbated the floods and landslides, and the government reacted by banning logging across the country.