People in Swat district of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took to the streets recently to protest against something that has never happened in the region before – deforestation of decades-old trees.
“It was indeed a rare demonstration,” said Niaz Ahmad Khan, a Mingora-based local journalist. “Our region is a tourist destination and people visit it due to its cold temperature. But unfortunately there is hardly any difference between Mingora and Mardan – a neighboring district,” he said adding the cutting of trees has also decreased the water-level to at least 60-feet.
Awareness among the masses came only after the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government launched a ‘Billion Tree Tsunami Project’ in late 2014, with the objective of preserving the beauty of the province, which was hampered by massive floods and mercilessly cutting of trees during the Taliban time 2007-2009 in Swat valley.
Imran Khan – then an opposition politician whose party Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf governed the province [2013-2018] – started the project. Official says the target has been achieved. Today, Khan is the prime minister and his government plans to plant 10-billion trees under its ‘Plant for Pakistan’ project during the next five years.
Muhammad Tehmasip, Projector Billion Tree Afforestation Project at Garhi Chandan near Peshawar. (Supplied)
Muhmmad Tehmasip is the project director for Billion Tree Afforestation Project, BTAP, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. He is happy to achieve the milestone of planting over a billion trees within a record time of three years.
“Our country is the 7th most vulnerable country to climate change. So we need more plantations to reduce our live losses,” added Tehmasip. Workers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have forested more than 600,000 hectares of land in the first phase. The province has been given another task of planting one billion more trees till 2023.
“This will help the country, as in the last 20-years, heavy monsoons and flooding have severely affected the lives and livelihoods of the people,” said Tehmasip. In 2010 massive floods hit the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province killing hundreds of people and leaving thousands homeless.
He says, five hundred plantation sites have been raised which also provides jobs to the local community. “With the help of local people, we have dismantled a number of timber mafia gangs.”
A small tree plantated by Prime Minister Imran Khan [then opposition parliamentarian] in 2015. (Supplied)
Garhi Chandan is one of the plantations site under the BTAP. It is located on the outskirts of Peshawar. “It used to be a barren, rugged landscape,” said Gulzar Rehman, divisional forest officer—pointing towards the lush green trees site.
Government has planted nearly a million trees on this area, he said adding which has not only made the region beautiful but also restrict the youngsters from militancy. The surrounding hills of Garhi Chandan were once infamous for terrorism and militants were moving freely in the terrains.
“Now, the government has provided ‘green jobs’ to the people of the area at their doorsteps, and they wouldn’t be distracted towards militants and involve in illicit practices,” added Rehman. “The days of militancy have been over and it’s the subject of the past.”
20-year-old Said Akram lives near the plantation site. He comes in the morning and goes back home in the afternoon. “I have been working as a labor on this site for the last three years. Initially the job was very difficult to dig holes, plant in hilly surface and to provide water to that many plants—pointing towards thousands of small and tall plants with pride,” says Akram.
Gulzar Rehman, divisional forest officer at Garhi Chandan tree site. (Supplied)
But on the other hand I enjoy the job as it’s nearby to my home and the amount, 15000 [Pakistani rupees, $110) is not bad either, he added. But everyone is not happy over the government claims.
“We believe there has been massive corruption in the project,” says Sardar Hussain Babak who is the member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly from the Awami National Party. His party ruled the province from 2008-2013. He pointed out some species like Eucalyptus trees, which aren’t environment friendly. The only aim of the government is to make their dear ones happy.
“It would have been much better had the government construct some dams in the province. That would have increased the water-level and bolster the region and climate by itself,” added Babak.
“This BTAP has raised awareness among the people, because they know it’s for their own benefit,” says Niaz Ahmed. People of Swat valley depends a lot on tourism and it could sustain only if greenery prevails.
Swat valley has suffered a lot, he said, first during the Taliban times and later by the timber mafia. But now, the masses have been involved by themselves and we are seeing apart from the government drive to plant trees, local people are also putting their share as well, added Niaz Ahmed.
Garhi Chandan tree plantation site after three years. (Supplied)
The plantation drive isn’t only limited to just journalists, civil society activists and government but all walks of life contributed to the project. “Our school took active participation in the plantation drive,” says Shehzad Anjum, a teacher at Shaheed Osama Zafar higher secondary school in Peshawar.
“There are many trees which have been planted by the teachers as well as students. It’s just the beginning and not going to stop.” Praising the government move, he said, it’s pertinent to make the students aware from such sort of projects and once that is achieved there wouldn’t be no need for the government to launch such sort of campaigns as these students will spread the message in the country.
Plantation in the province can be seen along the roads, motorways, canals and railway tracks, efficiently utilized for aesthetic beauty and shade value. At least 10 people died in the plantation drive.
Tehmasip, the project director, is happy to see the barren, rugged surface been replaced by green plants. He says, people have started building their homes near the lush green trees and soon it would attract wild life.
The project has provided five thousand direct jobs to the people in the province in the first phase and the same amount of jobs will be provided in the next phase that ends in 2023. “First environmental benefit would start in 2020 when plants would achieve the height of 20-feet,” Tehmasip says.
Nazar Ul Islam has been a print, online and television journalist since 2001. Belonging to the northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district, his articles have been published in the Daily Beast, Newsweek.com, Al-Jazeera, Central Asia online, Al-Arabiya, TRT World and Pakistan Forward. He has also reported and produced for TRT World, NHK Japanese TV and Khyber TV and has worked as stringer for CNN, Al-Arabiaya, France24 and Radio France International. He tweets @NaxarUlIslam.