Young trees planted as part of a reforestation campaign stand among older ones along the hilly road between Islamabad and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Image Credit: The Washington Post

When Mohammed Riasat, a government forest service officer, peers up at the majestic ridges around him, he sees small miracles others might miss: a few dozen pine seedlings that have sprouted in rocky, near-vertical cliffs or a grove of healthy young eucalyptus trees, planted on a patch of terrain that had been eroding after years of illegal use.

“When I see a grown tree cut down, I feel like a close relative has died,” said Riasat, who has spent three decades working with limited funds and staff to protect Pakistan’s beleaguered forests here in the verdant hills of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. “When I see a new one appear, I feel attached to it.”

Two years ago, that struggling effort got a huge boost. Imran Khan, then a politician whose party governed the province, launched a programme dubbed the “Billion Tree Tsunami”. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of trees were planted across the region, timber smuggling was virtually wiped out, and a cottage industry of backyard nurseries flourished.

Today, Khan is Pakistan’s prime minister, and his new government is aiming to replicate that success nationwide, this time with a “10 Billion Tree Tsunami”. Officials said they hope the initiative, launched in September, will foster environmental awareness in their impoverished, drought-plagued country, where both greed and necessity have left forests stripped; they now cover only 2 per cent of all land, according to the World Bank.

The plan is one of dozens that Khan has proposed in his wide-ranging agenda to fashion a “new” Pakistan. Some have met with scepticism, such as persuading wealthy overseas Pakistanis to finance the construction of dams and promising to end entrenched official corruption.

But the idea of a green awakening seems to be taking root. The new programme is expected to make enemies, especially powerful individuals and groups that have appropriated large tracts of government land for years. But the concept appeals to a new generation of better-educated Pakistanis, and it has sparked excitement on social media.

“This is one of the rare things in our society that is not divisive,” said Malik Amin Aslam, the new federal minister for climate change, who headed the original campaign in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. On September 2, when the government held 200 launch ceremonies across the country, enthusiastic citizens helped plant 2.5 million saplings in one day.

But experts said Pakistan will need more than a trillion new pines, cedars and eucalyptus trees to reverse decades of deforestation. It is even harder, they noted, to protect public forests from human predation, which is often hidden from view and hazardous to combat. Culprits include timber rustlers, villagers who let cattle forage freely and developers who raze acres of forested land.

During the pilot project in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, officials hired residents as forest guards, but 10 of them were killed trying to stop encroachers. And when an observant citizen repeatedly reported illegal logging in an obscure area of the province, local officials did nothing. Finally, provincial leaders fired every employee of the forest service administration.

“It was a signal of zero tolerance, and it sent shock waves across the government,” Aslam said.

The bold move also encouraged a budding environmental movement. One small victory occurred recently in Swat, a once-bucolic region in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that has suffered from years of deforestation and a takeover by Taliban militants. When local officials began cutting down trees to widen a road, protesters blocked it. Then Khan’s new government stepped in, and half of the trees were spared.

Khan’s victory in Pakistan prompts wave of euphoria — and ripples of scepticism

Several activists said the message was also beginning to change traditional habits that damage the environment. In one mountainous area, they said, some residents are planning to relocate to towns in the winter rather than chop down trees to heat their hillside homes.

“Everyone is waking up and starting to plant,” said Hazrat Maaz, a lawyer and environmentalist in Swat. He said he was “especially happy” to see one elderly man preventing sheep from grazing in an area of newly planted trees.

During a drive last month along steep, winding roads linking the capital, Islamabad, with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Riasat pointed out acres of two-year-old pines and eucalyptus trees, as well as newly protected forest areas where dozens of tiny pine saplings had taken root spontaneously.

Every few miles, large green signs promoting the Billion Tree Tsunami had been erected, listing how many acres had been planted. One, however, stood next to a freshly bulldozed road and chopped-off cliff where pines clung by their exposed roots. A site supervisor said the land had been purchased to build a restaurant for tourists.

Riasat said such commercial arrangements are permitted in that area. But on protected land, he said, the community caretaker programme has improved security by educating transgressors and imposing penalties if they persist.

“Before this campaign, people who wanted to build a house or graze their cattle just went into the woods. Now that has been stopped,” Riasat said. Even some former timber rustlers, he said, have started growing and selling trees. “We used to go after them, but now they come to us for advice,” he said.

Aslam said he has no illusions that planting and protecting billions of trees across Pakistan will happen cheaply or quickly. One obstacle will be forcing powerful people off public land they have long occupied; another is that two of Pakistan’s four provinces are dominated by political parties that are rivals of Khan’s Movement for Justice and are less likely to cooperate.

“The challenge is going to be much bigger this time,” Aslam said. “About 40 per cent of fertile public land has been encroached by land-grabbers, including some lawmakers. There will be a lot of blowback, but we have strong political commitment. We will enforce the law.”

In communities along the road to Haripur, residents seemed supportive of the campaign. Some noted the economic link between environmental preservation and tourism. Others said Khan’s provincial programme had spurred them to support his party in the recent national elections.

“All the beauty of the environment here is due to forests, and no one should be allowed to touch them,” said Mohammed Qayoum, 50, a retired schoolteacher in the town of Pir Sohawa. “For years, the officials never came to check on them, or they made deals to cut down trees. But in these past five years, that has all changed.”

Twenty miles farther on, several residents of Boddla village said they had benefited when the government planted acres of eucalyptus trees there in 2016. Some earned cash as labourers; others raised saplings for a small profit. They are forbidden to let their livestock roam among the new trees, so they now tie the animals in their yards.

“When things are green, it is a benefit for everyone,” said Khanan, a villager in his late 50s. Outside his mud-walled farmhouse, a cow and two goats were tethered under a thatch. “God will have mercy on this work,” he said.

–New York Times News Service