Afforestation – Climate Change and Ecosystem Integrity

Feb 18 2021 | 01:10:31
Ms. Aisha Khan, Executive Director, Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change delivered the opening remarks, highlighting the timeliness of this webinar as the spring plantation season for the government’s ambitious Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Project gets underway. She noted that there is an increasing need for accounting and advocacy on the role of trees in carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change, the Honorable Mr. Malik Amin Aslam, spoke on Pakistan’s high vulnerability to climate change – being one of three countries globally to consistently rank in the Top 10 Climate Risk Index from Germanwatch. He presented the case for Pakistan to urgently address climate change impacts, suggesting that planting trees was an easy and useful tool to achieve climate mitigation and adaptation goals. Mr. Aslam updated the group on the government’s tree plantation progress, stating that one billion trees would be planted by June 2021. He added that the current spring plantation campaign will see 350 million trees planted, focused on indigenous urban forestry using the Miyawaki Method, particularly in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar. Mr. Ali Habib, former CEO WWF, served as moderator for the webinar. Before introducing the panelists, Mr. Habib outlined the unusual programmatic approach taken by the PTI government in the KP Billion Tree Tsunami and the national Ten Billion Tree Tsunami projects. Despite the KP program’s success, he pointed out that with every cycle of success, one has to be aware of the learning opportunities, put them in context of future plans, and articulate their success in terms of meeting our climate obligations. He added that the national and provincial Environmental Protection Councils, apex bodies for environmental governance, have not convened in several years, and would add institutional strength and trust to the mega plantation activities of the PTI government. Mr. Takeaki Soto, Senior Environmental Specialist at the World Bank, provided a broad overview of the state of deforestation in South Asia from the FAO Global Forest Resource Assessment 2020. He noted that while the pace of deforestation in Pakistan is slowing down, much work is still needed. In particular, there is are major gaps in forest management that must be overcome. For context, more than 50% of the forests in Pakistan are currently managed without proper long management and work plans. Punjab and KP provinces have been able to improve their forests monitoring capacity under the afforestation efforts, while Balochistan and Sindh need increasing technical assistance to deliver on afforestation needs. He added that a long-term strategy for sustainable forests management was necessary. In terms of policy formulation, Pakistan does not have a long term plan or strategy for forest management. The Forestry Sector Management Plan is from 1992. At present, approved forest policy is available for Punjab and KP only, while AJK and GB have draft policies. Mr. Soto shed light on two World Bank projects that are involved in upscaling Pakistan’s afforestation activities. The $188 hydro-meteorological services project is focused on individual forest restoration support while the REDD+ project, in preparatory phase, will support the foundation for a market mechanism for forests and accessing carbon reduction credits. He reiterated that comprehensive policy, institutional and management systems review is the way forward, where valuation of nature based solutions to advance effective forests interventions is required.Mr. Syed Ghulam Qadir Shah, National REDD+ Coordinator at the Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC), explained the role of REDD+ for Pakistan to achieve sustainable forest cover. Under this World Bank and MOCC implemented project, several requirements for accessing climate funds are now completed – including a satellite and ground-based tree inventory and a National Strategy and Action Plan that sets benchmarks for historical deforestation, a robust and transparent monitoring system, and the development of safeguards that enhance community engagement. He noted that the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami project is serving as a practical demonstration and institutional strengthening activity, with a proposal ready for submission to the Green Climate Fund for consideration. He added that a major change needs to occur in how we value our forests to move the process towards long-term sustainability. Dr. Imran Khalid, Head of Environment and Climate Change Unit at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, spoke on the importance of trees from an ecological, cultural, social and economic perspective, but established that tree plantation alone will not resolve the climate crisis. Talking about afforestation and mitigation as a solution while deforestation is still increasing takes the pressure off of fossil fuels. There is potential to capture CO2 through trees, but they are not the ultimate solution. The conversation around afforestation needs to benefit from social and geographical context. He noted that high-level targets such as 10 billion create an environment for monoculture plantations, which are less resilient. The planting of 10 billion trees also requires heavy water investment in the immediate scenario, which are important considerations since Pakistan is a water stressed country. He recommended that a Strategic Environmental Assessment be conducted. It is a document that looks at upcoming plans and policies from multiple perspectives and develops policy action matrices that look at long run sustainability. Ms. Afia Salam, Environmental Journalist, spoke on the activist role of the courts in the afforestation front. Unless a proper amicus juris is appointed by the court, it does not promote the kind of accountability and monitoring that is needed to improve the process and move forward. It is a high profile project, which is why there are so many questions about it. She stated that many of the criticisms of the afforestation program stem from gaps in institutional capacity and resources. The blame on provincial and district departments is easy to give. But have they been given the resources to achieve these new mandates? Is an enabling environment there? She noted that good work in being done on this front, citing the example of mangrove restoration along the coastline. Specifically, National Accountability Bureau rolled back its investigations into afforestation corruption after visiting sites to determine the on-ground change accomplished by district level investments in plantations. She added that we need to plant trees amongst people, which is how we will be able to cater to their requirements as well. Criminalizing people because they are cutting wood to meet their needs, which are otherwise unmet. Where are the solutions for those people? Rationalize the needs.  A question asked by the audience relating to land grabbing saw panelists reiterate the need for a Strategic Environmental Assessment as well as appropriately valuing ecosystem services. The importance of the blue economy and blue carbon was also discussed as it relates to coastal resilience, mangrove restoration and incentives for private lands restoration. The coordinating mechanisms between federal and provincial units need to be exercised, namely through the convening of relevant councils. 
Key Takeaways
1)    Afforestation is not a silver bullet strategy for climate mitigation. It is an important pillar of climate response. Deforestation is decelerating in Pakistan, but it needs to be reversed to begin to have an impact as climate response. 
2)    Monitoring, reporting and public disclosure are important elements of afforestation programs. The learning from the Billion Tree Tsunami points to a need for even greater transparency and information access, specifically by addressing information pollution.
3)    Provincial departments should present disaggregated information through their websites .
4)    Forests Act 1927 applicable in all provinces of Pakistan. If these laws are broken within their jurisdiction, it is punishable. On private property that is not applicable. Even within forests, there are rights of local community. Until we provide alternate resources, communities will continue to rely on forests for livelihood. Alternate energy options are needed to reduce pressure on forestry resources. This is where REDD+ is providing supported through financial mechanisms. 
5)    Conducting a Strategic Environmental Assessment will solidify the government’s position five years down the road, and will be the true measure of success for these efforts if it engages all stakeholders. 
6)    Water being the limiting factor, there are natural limitations to expanding tree cover in Pakistan. Reliance on only government lands is not enough to increased forest cover beyond 10%. Greening of multiple other spaces needs to be incorporated into the afforestation program to generate meaningful impact.
7)    Landscape and ecosystem services approach benefit from participatory forest management. Pakistan has yet to implement this strategy. 8)    Overcoming the challenges of population growth, industrialization and services provision to forest communities will determine the long-term sustainability of forest cover in Pakistan. 9)    Institutionalization of private sector engagement requires the development of guidance documentation and new valuation mechanisms for the business community to identify the profit motive for action.