The massive program, dubbed Ten Billion Tree Tsunami, went into effect last year and has already planted more than 500 million saplings across the country, Federal Minister for Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam told VOA.
“We are hoping to get our first billion target done by June next year,” Aslam said. He added the overall target is to add 10 billion trees by planting and natural regeneration through a phased approach at a cost of about $760 million.
Aslam explained the campaign will increase “exponentially” in speed and scale in the coming days because the government has generated adequate nursery stock over the last two years.
“The biggest obstacle in this process is the generation of nurseries. When we started, we had a nursery stock of about 30 million all over Pakistan. Today, the nursery stock we have in Pakistan is 300 million,” Aslam said.
Pakistan’s total forest cover is estimated to be less than 3%, one of the lowest levels in the region and well below the 12% recommended by the United Nations.
The South Asian nation of about 220 million is listed in the top 10 countries most likely to be affected by global warming and has one of the highest deforestation rates in Asia.
Aslam noted the tree plantation program is also generating tens of thousands of new employment opportunities and is expected to create about 1.5 million jobs over the next three years when the government will have hit the target of nearly 3.3 billion trees.
“For every dollar you invest in nature, you get nine dollars back. So, you get jobs, you get local employment, you get (a) green economy going,” the minister told VOA.
“Even during the COVID era, we created 84,000 jobs for people who were out of jobs,” he added, referring to the coronavirus pandemic that hit Pakistan in February.
The outbreak prompted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to introduce nationwide lockdowns to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has infected at least 315,000 Pakistanis, and resulted in more than 6,500 deaths. New infections, however, have dramatically and steadily declined to several hundred a day since June, encouraging the government to lift all lockdowns.
Khan spearheaded a reforestation campaign, known as Billion Tree Tsunami, in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party has been governing since 2013.
The four-year program restored 350,000 hectares of forests and degraded land, surpassing its 348,400 hectares commitment to the Bonn Challenge and winning Khan international praise for his climate change efforts.
The Bonn Challenge, established in 2011, calls for the restoration of 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands by 2030.
Billion Tree Tsunami program
The Billion Tree Tsunami program generated about 500,000 green jobs for men and women in poverty-stricken remote areas of the scenic Pakistani province. It has established a network of private tree nurseries and boosted local incomes.
The World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan (WWF-P), which monitored and audited the tree-planting effort in KP, reported that the project has been an environmental, economic and social success, with one of the highest survival rates of trees in the world, ranging from 75% to more than 80%.
Officials at the International Union for Conservation of Nature-Pakistan (ICUN-P) hailed the initiative as “a true conservation success story.”
Khan launched the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami program after his party won the July 2018 national election and he became prime minister.
Last week, the Pakistani government signed an agreement with a consortium of three international organizations for a third-party monitoring and evaluation of the “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami” program from 2020 to 2024.
The consortium comprises WWF-P, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and ICUN-P.
FAO deputy representative Farrukh Toirovi described the program as a historic undertaking by Pakistan.
“This is a project which will benefit not only today the people of Pakistan, but also it will be benefiting the people all around the world and the region, and also for the people of the generations to come,” Toirovi said. “We from FAO are interested in this project so that we can take these lessons from Pakistan and try to use it also in other countries.”
Hammad Khan Naqi, director general of the WWF-Pakistan, explained that his organization will evaluate 30% of the plantation sites, 30% for wildlife conservation and 100% percent of the protected areas across the country.
Pakistani officials say the unprecedented third-party monitoring of a government project will ensure impartial “verification, transparency and accountability” of the massive reforestation drive and of the public funds being spent on it.
Authorities say a key part of the project is to curtail activities of the powerful “timber mafia” that for decades has operated in Pakistan unhindered.
The KP provincial government effectively dismantled hundreds of illegal sawmills and arrested timber cutters while implementing the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project there, leaving at least two forest guards dead in such encounters and injuring many more.