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The billion tree solution

Before the onset of the project, there were forests on 20.3 percent of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s land. By November 2014, the share of forests had gone up to 26.3 percent.
by Iftikhar Firdous

The word tsunami means devastation elsewhere in the world. But in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhunkhwa province, people are associating it with a flood of green.

The provincial government has fought back climate change and deforestation by planting millions of saplings. The project is officially called the Billion Tree Afforestation Project, or BTAP.

Setting the stage

The work actually started back in 1997 when the then federal government had asked the German donor agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zuzammenarbeit (GIZ), to survey KP’s forests. This took three years, and the audit report was published in 2000. The survey found that an alarming 78 percent of KP’s forests were understocked. And a striking three-fourth of these understocked forests could not grow back.

Read more: The Perils of Inaction on Climate Change

When the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government came to power in the province in 2014, it resumed work on forests. The first phase of the project went underway in November 2014. It lasted till December 2015. The second phase was from January 2016 to June 2017. The third phase that started in July 2017 is still underway, and is expected to be wrapped up by June 2020.

One of the nurseries set up for the project. Saplings are supplied from these facilities to locations identified throughout Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Courtesy: BTAP

The BTAP has enabled the KP province to become the first sub-national jurisdiction anywhere in the world to be mentioned in the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020, and to increase this area to 350 million hectares by 2030. It was launched in 2011 by the Government of Germany and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and later endorsed and extended by the New York Declaration on Forests at the 2014 UN Climate Summit.

The plan is for 60 percent of the one-billion plants to be able to grow through natural regeneration. This signifies is a major shift in approach. Hitherto, all four federal forest policies were aimed at only conserving what existed.

It was only after the 18th amendment to Pakistani constitution in 2010 that forests were made a department under provincial governments.

The majority of forests in KP are in the Malakand and Hazara regions. Three major floods in 1992, 2005, and 2010, caused considerable damage to these forests. Wildfires, grazing, and timber smuggling are widely believed to be other reasons for their understocking.

Challenges and solutions

Planting millions of trees is no small feat, but what was a greater challenge was to ensure it was done properly. This is where technology came in, and in fact, as the project director says, it was perhaps the single more important reason why the work has succeeded.

The biggest challenge was finding land and getting enough seeds for such a massive plantation drive. The Forest Department involved communities and nurseries. It also went after the land mafia and reclaimed 100,000 kanals in order to free it up for plantations.

Degraded forests were closed off and a Negehban Force (Protector Force) was formed with volunteers inducted from communities to guard them.

As many parts of KP are not easily reached, the project used drones to spray seeds — a practice referred to as aerial broadcasting. The Forests Department even designed a special funnel to disperse 27 tons of seed in a go.

The project also needed legal help. So the Forest Ordinance and Policy was amended. Officers of the Finance, and Planning and Development departments and the Forest Development Fund, a detailed steering committee, worked together. They were given special powers so the project could be implemented without a glitch.

Some innovations included free distribution of plants grown in nurseries and planting by communities themselves at homes and on arable land. People were paid for what they grew on their own land. Community-owned land was harnessed. Village committees were paid to plan in enclosures over depleted natural forests.

To conserve water, the project team acquired solar-based and tractor-propelled water pumps and built small ponds. In the driest areas, disposable plastic bottles were placed beside the plants and punctured with a needle to ensure a slow drip of water to keep the soil wet.

Read more: New Report Highlights Pakistan’s Need to Adapt to Climate Change

The techniques have varied according to the soil types. For example, in the chalky soil of Kohat and Hangu, the planters have to dig 30cm pits to insert the six-to-nine-month old polythene tube plants. They have to break the hard layer. For areas which receive less than 250mm of rain annually, the instructions are to water the plants by hand in the first year if there is no irrigation system. At the other end of the spectrum, for the waterlogged and swampy lands in Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Mardan and Charsadda, planters have been told to put the plants in raised beds or mounds and along deep continuous channels dug up for drainage. The instructions are to dig channels in the herringbone design, or at 45 degree angles, leading to the main channel. The aim is to drain the swamp and plan the saplings higher up.

Source: World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan)

The sandy soil and sand dunes of Tank get a separate treatment as do the drought-prone southern areas of the region.

Even the choice of sapling is calibrated according to the type of ground they will be planted in. For example, in areas that don’t get enough rain, the Acacia albida has been chosen as it is drought-resistant. In waterlogged areas, the project team has gone for the Acacia nilotica, gum arabic tree or ramkanthi, as it helps with land rehabilitation.

Gauging progress

Drones, Geographic Information System (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS), and helicopter aerial broadcasting are the technologies deployed to monitor the work and check if the saplings are growing fine. These facilities also help the team see if there is any malpractice going on. For the first time, GIS mapping is being done and the coordinates have been inserted into Google maps. Anyone in any part of the world can check the progress through satellite imagery.

Women and school children participate in the plantation drive.

Every officer on the ground has been given a device to be able to mark where the saplings have been planted so the system knows every site. This was essential because the project is so vast that at times it has been difficult to keep track of plantation work. Reference coordinates are taken with the help of a GPS tracker to ensure there is no overlapping. Prior to this, work was all done on paper and hence the margin of error was greater.

The work was divided in three ways. Private nurseries did 60 percent of the work, the government did 25 percent (called block plantation), and individual farmers took care of the remaining 15 percent. Of these farmers, 40 percent are young people, 10 percent women and 10 percent senior citizens. The project has provided an estimated 500,000 people with sources of earnings.

Read more: Disappearing Forests

Two organizations, Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), have been auditing the project’s impact on climate change. This is the first time independent third-party monitoring has been done for the Forest Department’s work. Based on its assessment so far, the WWF has declared that project interventions have an 85 percent survival rate.

Roadside plantation

Before the onset of the BTAP, 20.3 percent of KP’s land was forests. By November 2014, this share had gone up to 26.3 percent.

Other positive outcomes have included the retrieval of 140,000 kanal of arid land for plantation purposes. About 20,000 hectares of saline land and 2,000 hectares of marshland has been saved. Some extinct plants, many of which are prized for their medicinal value, in these habitats have also been saved.

The project director thinks there are two reasons for success. One is the government’s intentions. He believes it was the leadership that took the initiative from top to bottom otherwise accomplishing a feat of such a scale would have been nearly impossible. The second reason very simply is the economic push. The funding came from multiple sources including the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Forest Development Fund, Rs2b from the Energy and Power Development funds and a supplementary grant.

The project has, however, come at a price. At least 11 personnel from the project team died on duty, in accidents as well as attacks orchestrated by the timber mafia. Six others have been left physically disabled for life in these incidents.

Iftikhar Firdous is a journalist based in Peshawar.