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Disappearing Forests

by Nushmiya Sukhera

Pakistan’s forests are no longer what they used to be. At the time of partition, the country’s forest cover stood at 33 percent. By 1990, Pakistan’s forest cover had declined to 3.3 percent. Fast forward another quarter of a century, to 2015, and it has fallen further, to 1.9 percent.  Deforestation and degradation has nearly quadrupled, rising from 0.75 percent in 2009 to 2.9 percent in 2015.

This alarming rate of deforestation has naturally raised concerns about its impact on the country’s climate and whether this downward trend will continue to spiral.

According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 1992, natural forests accounted for 4.2 million hectares (ha), which is 4.8 percent of the total land area of 87.98 million ha.  Although forest land has remained at 4.8 percent, forest cover has greatly declined over the years, resulting in soil erosion, flooding, loss of habitat and an increased amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

International Union for Conservation of Nature global vice president and chair of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) Green Growth Initiative Malik Amin Aslam told MIT Technology Review that Pakistan’s forest land cover figures are some of the lowest in the world.  “At the same time, the deforestation rates are some of the highest,” he said.

Read more: The Perils of Inaction on Climate Change

“Human pressure on natural forests has risen greatly because of the exponential growth in the population,” said South Punjab Forest Company’s (SPFC) chief executive officer Tahir Rasheed. “The enduring presence of the timber mafia has had a major impact in this regard. At the same time, conversion of forest lands for agriculture and lenient policies of the government – for example, the removal of the ban on forest cutting ban for a short while – all have contributed significantly to these dismal statistics.”

In 2016, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan had said that illegal logging by the timber mafia was responsible for over Rs200 billion in losses in KP.

“Timber mafia is a collusion of various stakeholders who have an interest – mostly financial – in shaving off large tracts of forests,” said Aslam. According to him, KP is the only province which has taken concrete measures to reverse dangerous deforestation trends. Backed by the PTI, the Billion Tree Tsunami initiative has added 150,000 hectares of new afforested land in the province. This has raised the forest cover from 20 percent to 22 percent over three years. At least 3,000 hectares was also retrieved from land mafia and encroachers under the drive.

To counter the rampant illegal timber trade, operational licenses of 617 saw mills were cancelled in the Malakand Hazara divisions and 300 high profile offenders with more than 800 vehicles used in the illicit timber trade were seized. The campaign also captured over 100,000 cubic feet of illegal timber which is now being auctioned. The proceeds will be spent on the province’s afforestation program.

Rasheed explains that forestry departments have ample non-development funds for salaries, travel and daily allowances (TADA’s) and other expenditures, but not nearly enough for development purposes. This means that the much needed afforestation and reforestation programs cannot be carried out. The current deforestation rate is between 2 to 2.9 percent, which, according to Rasheed, is extremely dangerous because if it remains at this level, even the 1.9 percent forest cover will disappear.

Over the last one year, some green initiatives were launched by the federal and provincial governments. In February, 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif launched the Green Pakistan Programme which aimed to plant 100 million trees across the country over five years. The government of the Punjab also established the South Punjab Forest Company which aims to engage private companies for sustainable forestry over 134,995 acres across the south Punjab region. The idea behind the project is to alleviate pressure from already limited natural forests for various purposes. “These initiatives, together with KP’s billion tree tsumani project, are working towards improving Pakistan’s forest cover,” says Rasheed.

Read more: Pakistan at Risk

Forests have a cooling impact on the global climate as they absorb carbon dioxide. Deforestation releases carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. As much as 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the world are due to deforestation. With Pakistan being one of the worst casualties of climate change, the forestry sector has acquired immense importance but perhaps not enough attention or education.

Officials contacted at the Ministries of Climate Change and Environment were unable to add value to the conversation. One official believed that the effects of climate change would manifest in two or three decades. Another had no primary data to support his views.

Unless urgent action is taken to fully grasp the dangers associated with deforestation, Pakistan may soon be left with zero forest cover, which will further compound the effects of climate change.


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