Finally the wait is over. The federal government has received a nod from the Council of Common Interests to go ahead with the National Forest Policy. The policy was direly needed as Pakistan has been surviving without one since it came into existence. The goal was to provide a plan to protect forests from human pressures and natural threats, and in fact, help them flourish and grow.
The need for a policy can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan’s forest cover at the time of Partition was 4.8%, according to the forest sector master plan of 1992. This was clearly not good enough to begin with and as expected, over the course of time, they were degraded at the hands of humans and development. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the most notable authority on forests, revealed in its Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 report that Pakistan has undergone one of the highest rates of deforestation, up to 2.1% from 1990 to 2015 on average.
By 1990, Pakistan’s forest cover was 3.3% and it came down to 1.9% by 2015, according to the World Bank.
Pakistan is, however, blessed with the most unique forests: littoral or mangrove forests, tropical thorn forests, sub-tropical scrub forests, moist and dry temperate forests, sub-alpine scrub and alpine meadows, juniper forests and chilghoza forests. But they are being cut down by people desperate for money.
Tackling deforestation is urgent also because of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deforestation contributes up to 20% of the global annual greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest source of emissions (the first being fossil fuel burning).
By 1990, Pakistan’s forest cover was 3.3% and it came down to 1.9% by 2015, according to the World Bank
The National Forest Policy of Pakistan’s main objectives are increasing forestry awareness on economic, social, ecological and cultural levels; implementing a national level afforestation programme to improve forest cover; curbing deforestation; establishing and managing protected areas; reducing carbon emissions from energy and economic sector programmes; facilitating implementation of global conventions on forestry, biodiversity improvement and climate change adaptation and mitigation etc.
Forests are a source of energy, which is why the policymakers say that annually planting 70 million to 80 million saplings is not enough to meet the increasing demand for wood. However, the recently launched Green Pakistan Programme which aims to plant 100 million plants across the country and the Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project in KP by this year’s end, are hopefully going to contribute to meeting the demands of the wood-based industry.
At the national level, the rate of deforestation is estimated at 27,000 hectares per year, which mainly occurs in private and community-owned natural forests.
The deforestation has the alarming impact of landsliding, soil erosion, land degradation and biodiversity loss, and in low-lying and coastal areas, it leads to floods and sea-water intrusion.
Syed Mahmood Nasir, the Inspector General for Forests at the Ministry of Climate Change, is the principle architect of the forest policy. He said that the policy has been approved in principle but the chief ministers of the provinces need to weigh in and it has to go before the Council of Common Interest.
According to Nasir, the salient features of the policy are conserving existing forests, increasing them and promoting an increase in trees outside forests, such as farm forestry and community forestry.
If this policy is effectively implemented, Pakistan will be able to seek benefits from the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme, a mechanism to offer incentives to forest owners based on rigorous monitoring on a regular basis, which will promote forest conservation, control deforestation and enhance forest carbon stock in Pakistan.
When asked how the policy will help save the last remaining forests of Pakistan, Nasir said, “The policy provides a holistic framework that links it with other sectors of the economy.”
The forest policy mentions how the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) offers an opportunity to establish ecological corridors which can help promote conservation of plants and animals. It suggests to weaving in the cost of ecological corridors in the projects, managing existing protected areas and establishing new ones, linking protected areas with each other, and forming trans-boundary ecological corridors along CPEC.
The prime forest zones, particularly the ones in Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan and Kohistan of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are being severely affected, the policy reveals. As most of the coniferous forests in these areas are either privately owned or communal, and in the absence of any mechanism to compensate forest owners for not cutting trees, the policy identifies UN programme as the way to ensure payments to forest communities for reducing emissions by controlling deforestation and forest degradation.
The World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and the UN’s REDD Programme are assisting Pakistan in the preparation of a REDD+ national strategy and monitoring mechanisms.
Tahir Rasheed, the CEO of the South Punjab Forest Company and a forestry expert, was optimistic that the much-needed national policy will lead to better policy-making on forests, eventually leading to efficient strategies. He quoted a study conducted in the Hazara Division which revealed a 52% decline in forest resources between 1967 and 1992. “If we failed to protect our forests, by 2050, Pakistan will have none,” he warned.
Malik Amin Aslam, who chairs KP’s Green Growth Initiative and is a regional councillor for the IUCN, was of the view that the Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project will help the national policy achieve its objectives. “[The Billion Tree] is producing on ground what the national policy aims to achieve in the future—protection of natural forests, expansion of forest areas, community empowered ownership of natural resources, green jobs, enhancement of local biodiversity, independent auditing for transparency. The project has managed to achieve all of that.” He says that Billion Tree has led to an increase in the forest cover of KP from 20% to 22% of land area and forest enrichment on 150,000 hectares of natural forest.
Malik Amin suggests that stakeholder ownership and political will can ensure the success of the forest policy, however if deforestation continues, the country will face further economic and ecological losses. “Pakistan is a country highly vulnerable to climate change and when we shave off our forests, it just exponentially increases the risks of flooding, glacial lake outbursts and land sliding, while significantly reducing our capacity to adapt to climate change,” he added.
Syed Muhammad Abubakar writes on climate change, deforestation, food security and sustainable development. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar