Saving Pakistan's environment, a tree at a time

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.

The ban made logging illegal but did not stop it. Instead, a timber mafia of locals, corrupt politicians and police officers developed, particularly in the northwestern areas where the forest cover is denser and law enforcement — especially in more recent years — has been more lax.

While loggers have been busy cutting down trees, the government has developed an obsession with tree plantation campaigns.

Each spring, city officials across Pakistan pose for local newspaper photographers with a sapling in their hand. Even foreign leaders have been asked to lend a hand, with George Bush Sr., China’s Hu Jintao or more recently Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai among more than 100 foreign dignitaries who have planted a tree on a hill above Islamabad.

Last year, Pakistan took tree planting to Guinness World Record level when more than half a million trees were planted during one day in a mangrove southeast of Karachi. That archrival India had been the record holder surely provided some extra motivation.

The government’s latest efforts look more promising, Shahbaz said, in part because the new forest policy is slated to lift the logging ban and limit timber harvesting to well stocked forests.

Ejaz Ahmad, deputy director general of the WWF-Pakistan, is also reasonably optimistic. He said the forest program was developed in consultation with all stakeholders, from the minister to communities and NGOs, and was endorsed by all provinces, giving it “better chances” of success.

Yet Ahmad acknowledged that there was no guarantee the new program would not fail as others have, but he said the dire state of Pakistan’s forests left no choice.

“Corruption and these things are there,” he said, “but it should not mean that we should not try.”