Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Trekkers and guides passed by trees in July 2011 felled by timber thieves. The trees lie in a valley two days march from Novroz Baba in Indian-controlled Kashmir near the Line of Control with Pakistan and the resort town of Gulmarg.

How Pakistan is leading efforts to stop deforestation

Pakistan has a discouraging track record when it comes to deforestation, but a province in the country's northern region is looking to change that as more locals see the value in conversation. 

After years of deforestation, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), one of Pakistan's four provinces, is focused on large-scale "afforestation."

Under KP's ruling party Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), "The Billion Tree Tsunami" project has been working to save Pakistan's forests since June 2015 through a two-pronged approach: prevent future deforestation and rectify past damage by planting 1 billion saplings by the end of 2017. 

In the past year, 250 million saplings have been planted in KP – far exceeding the typical annual count of 20 million.

When Pakistan gained its independence in the late 1940s, 33 percent of the country was covered in forests. But according to figures released by the Ministry of Climate Change in 2015, only 5 percent of the country now has tree cover. Some nongovernmental reports suggest current forest cover is actually lower at 3 percent.

"Much of the cutting is due to poverty – lacking other resources and fuels, Pakistanis have resorted to clearing their forests to cook their food and boil water for tea," explains Climatewire's Nathanial Gronewold in 2010. "But most attribute deforestation to Pakistan's famous 'timber mafia,' a shadowy network of politically connected individuals and firms that chop down trees at will and cart them away under the cover of darkness, with bribes to local and national officials guaranteeing that forest managers look the other way."

In recent years, heavy rainfall in Pakistan has caused a number of dangerous landslides and mountainside erosions. Hundreds of Pakistanis have already died this year from at least three separate landslides in the northern region of the country.

And state officials say they believe climate change is responsible for the fatalities: Such erosion is caused by heavy rainfall, which is only encouraged by rising temperatures. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, so scientists believe the total volume of precipitation likely increases by 1 to 2 percent for each degree of warming.

Not only does deforestation contribute to climate change by reducing the number of carbon dioxide-absorbing trees, but it also amplifies the strength of landslides. Without trees to hold the soil and absorb water, excess rain can easily push exposed soil down a mountainside.  

"Along with the crackdown on the timber mafias, we have started the large scale afforestation project called 'The Billion Tree Tsunami' to reverse this trend and save future generations," Malik Amin Aslam, a Pakistani environmentalist and adviser to the PTI party in KP, tells The Third Pole, a partner of the Earth Journalism Network focused on preserving the Himalayan watershed. "The KP government has committed to not only reversing the high rate of deforestation, but also shifting the current philosophy of treating forests as "revenue" machines towards preserving them as valued 'natural capital.' "

Although 750 million saplings still have to be planted for the KP government to fulfill its goal, Mr. Aslam says the hardest part of the project is over. The infrastructure for "massive nurseries" is already in place, so this year's process will simply be replicated to add 300 million saplings to the 2016 target.

And the remaining 450 million saplings are being grown naturally on the sites of felled forests, protected by the local communities who seek a profitable – yet sustainable – return from the trees. Households are realizing the economic potential of a sustainably managed nursery, which can bring in an extra 20,000 rupees (equivalent to $190) each month by selling saplings to government plantations.

"Last year no one was asking us for private nurseries and this year so many people are approaching us for private nurseries," Raees Khan, the District Forest Officer for Haripur tells Dawn News, "we have far less than is the demand of the communities."

And as Imran Kahn, chairman of the PTI, tells The Third Pole, the Billion Tree Tsunami project is about more than sapling count.

"The project is aimed at not only planting a billion trees by 2018 but also shifting mindsets in the province and in Pakistan from environmental destruction towards valuing, conserving, and preserving our precious natural resources."

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