Despite the significance of forests in helping preserve biodiversity, combating climate change and supporting people’s livelihoods, Pakistan has not paid much heed to protecting its forest cover since independence, which has resultantly been depleting at alarming rates. Recent government estimates admit that the existing forest cover is insufficient. However, the official claims of forest cover (of around 4.5 per cent) are refuted by other estimates, which claim that this forest cover is no more than two per cent of the country’s land mass.
Considering the pace of deforestation, if the cutting of trees continues unchecked, Pakistan is likely to lose most of its forest within the next three or four decades as per assessments by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. Yet, relevant state authorities have been unable to curb deforestation in Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
One of the major reasons for the decreasing forest cover is the absence of a comprehensive forestry policy. The attitude of politicians has also not shown much foresight. The chief minister of Punjab created quite a stir during his last stint due to a proposal to hand over forestry department land to agricultural graduates to undertake farming. Another controversial timber movement policy for Diamer district in Gilgit-Baltistan was approved by the outgoing prime minister, just a day before his term expired, which allowed the transportation of around four million cubic feet of timber from Diamer to other parts of Pakistan. Previously, the timber movement was restricted within Gilgit-Baltistan, as a measure to curb deforestation. Environmentalists and civil society representatives fear the movement is likely to increase illegal logging because of weak enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. Even the newly-formed Ministry of Climate Change has opposed this policy and seems in favour of its reversal.
Given the lingering absence of political will to preserve our national forest cover, it is unclear if newly-emerged political forces, such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), will help improve the existing situation. Unveiling its environmental policy just prior to elections, the PTI had made bold promises of focusing on action rather than rhetoric to meet the prevailing challenges. The PTI had particularly highlighted how environment degradation can be reversed through reforestation and other sustainable development measures. The PTI, in fact, promised it would create millions of jobs as a result of turning the economy ‘green’. Now, the PTI has a chance to prove these assertions, in K-P in particular, where it has been given the chance to form a government and is empowered by the Eighteenth Amendment to address the deforestation challenge.
There is no doubt that deforestation is threatening the livelihoods of many poor people in our country who depend on the forests for their fuel and livelihood needs. Deforestation is also blamed for exacerbating the damage caused by natural disasters such as floods and landslides, since the absence of tree cover causes soil erosion and diminishes groundwater absorption. Researchers have also identified deforestation as a major factor behind expansion of the country’s heat zone, reduced flow in the Indus River as well as shrinkage of the Indus River Delta.
Countering deforestation requires tackling a range of other major issues such as the multiple pressures of rapid population growth, as well as the well-entrenched interests of the commercial and illegal timber mafias. It remains to be seen if the newly-elected political parties, along with new entities like the Climate Change Ministry, will be up to the task of not only preserving our scant forest cover, but actually increasing it.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2013.