Trees matter, and they matter a lot

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initiative of planting one billion trees in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa sets an example of hope

Rasul Bakhsh Rais October 17, 2018
The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

It is utterly conventional in the power politics of Pakistan that is riddled by corruption, inefficiency and decline of governing capacity to make a political issue out of trees. It is not surprising that the feudal elite politics of Pakistan and the four military regimes missed out hugely on forestation that would be fundamental to the well-being of the present and the future generations of Pakistan. The conventional politicians are possessed here by now, and me and my family and friends. Thinking what could make them politically powerful was never a good politics. They have understood only the pedestrian definition of politics—the power grab by whatever means and for whatever self-interest.

Never did they grasp the moral and rational principles of politics, which are about serving public interest, taking care of the people, nature, environment and ecology. While they ‘governed’, they rather ruled largely in self-interest, the timber mafias emerged in every part of the country where they could see big trees standing. They operated, and still do, with the connivance of the forest departments. I have seen the forests planted in the 1960s totally disappear in Rajanpur district. Then, I remember travelling by train from Lahore to Multan and feeling cool freshness of air that would tell we were passing through Khanewal. All is gone, and the state lands—actually collective public properties—have been grabbed by the locally influential figures or by criminals working with the state employees responsible for the protection of forests.

It is never too late to stem the rot. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initiative of planting one billion trees in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa sets an example of hope. It is one of the greatest things, even far greater than his history-making Cricket World Cup victory that our present and future generations will always remember. It takes time, lots of care and patience to grow trees, and when it comes to billions of saplings, it is an unbelievably mammoth task. It started with a simple but great idea—the tree matters for our own and the global environment.

From the reports that I have been reading, some in the international press, state that the ‘billion-tree tsunami’ has been very successful in K-P. Sadly, we saw a lot of caricaturing and ridiculing of tree plantation by the opposition parties and their friends in the media. They rejected the drive as ‘false’, ‘undoable’, ‘exaggerated’ and bound to ‘fail’—a very conventional opposition politics. Instead of mud-slinging, the Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan governments, should have sent researchers, administrators and foresters to study a success story of reforestation and have done the same.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party now are in power in two provinces and at the centre. They don’t have an excuse not to expand the tree plantation programme to Punjab and do more in K-P, as well as assist the other two provinces. Tree plantation is one of the initiatives that stand out of the regular electoral politics in which things are done or not done keeping in mind the possible impact on the electoral prospects of the incumbent parties. Trees and environment are for all—humans, birds, animals and every living creature—a shared ecology within the nation and across the global communities.

By problematising environment and bringing it to the national attention, Imran Khan is highlighting a national as well as a global issue—climate change. The agriculturists would bear me out on how global warming has affected our weather patterns and crop productivity. Essentially, greening and environment are economic issues but of long-term gestation, and of little value to the quick-fix, populist politics.

Apart from numbers of trees, we need to encourage local varieties, local ownership, community participation, and a transparent system of counting, care and management. Sooner the better.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2018.

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