Since its inception, the odds were always stacked against the success of the “Billion Tree Tsunami” project in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province – an ambitious plan to reverse worsening deforestation in Hindu Kush Himalayan region of northwestern Pakistan. However, the province has already met 80% of its stated goal and is now expected to hit its billion-tree goal by the end of 2017.
To transform this enticing slogan into a reality the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, governing the province of KPK, developed a four pronged strategy: to plant new trees and regenerate existing forests; ensure a high level of transparency; maintain a focus on people centered development; and most importantly confront the powerful “timber mafia”. This deep rooted mafia treated forest timber as a booty to be plundered and shared amongst the powerful elite.
All four pillars had to be clearly defined and simultaneously implemented to reach where the project is today. First, the province set the green target of restoring 384,000 hectares of forest with the global “Bonn Challenge”, which gave it an additional layer of credibility and strengthened the existing commitment of the province. Sixty percent of the billion tree target is to be reached by enhanced natural regeneration through community managed protection of the natural forests. The remaining 40 percent is being achieved by expanding plantations employing a public-private model of shared revenues and growth.
Second, the high level of transparency was achieved through an annual performance audit carried out by an independent third party – in this case WWF international. This was supplemented with a website making public all relevant information such as GIS/GPS maps and coordinates of plantations, project planning documents and audit reports.
Third, the project was designed to remain people centric by creating “green jobs”. This has resulted in the creation of over half a million new jobs, especially for rural women and unemployed youth, through schemes such as “youth nurseries” as well as indigenous community forest guards or “nighabans”.
The fourth pillar, and the most central to its success, was to “push back” the timber mafia in the province. Over the past few decades of negligent and sometimes colluding governments, this mafia had become deeply entrenched in the provincial system – from politicians, to bureaucrats, forest department officials to the timber contractors and scores of people with vested interests in this illicit timber business. It was evident that unless this mafia was taken on, all efforts to restore the natural forests would be futile.
By 2013, 74% of KPK’s forests had deforested and depleted beyond their regenerative capacity under the constant pressure of illicit loggers. While on paper there was a legal ban on harvesting timber, in practice this ban was openly violated with connivance and collusion of the forest department and profiteering contractors. The result was a rapid deforestation with no revenues accruing to the government. In addition, this illegal practice was supplemented with a legal “loophole” whereby under the garb of a distorted “windfall” policy thousands of aged and old trees were marked as unfit for further growth and legally prepared to be cut down.
Reversing this situation required a stoic, solid and unbending political will. The “green” credentials of the governing party were put to the test and it rapidly responded on a number of fronts employing legal, political and administrative measures.
Legally, the government scrapped the highly abused “windfall” policy of previous regimes and also reversed all permissions for cutting down thousands of old trees. A new policy based on sustainable and scientific management of forests was put in place, while the complete ban on tree felling continued to be enforced but only in KPK’s reserve forests. Furthermore, the government committed to act resolutely and with a “zero tolerance” towards illicit timber cutting. Its resolve was soon put to the test and it responded unforgivingly by removing from office three layers of forest department officials in one sweep, when a shady deal was detected. Such unwavering steps sowed the seeds of a mindset change and emboldened others to take administrative actions against the illegal loggers. Thus, an effective campaign against the illicit traders met with resounding success.
This drive started with a satellite based demarcation survey of forest land, which was conducted after a gap of almost a hundred years, and resulted in the forceful reclamation of over 3,000 hectares of forest land from mafia accomplices and protected encroachers. This was followed by the cancellation of operational licenses and dismantling of 617 saw mills in the Malakand and Hazara divisions and the apprehension of over 300 high profile offenders and the impounding of over 800 vehicles being used in the illicit timber trade. The pinnacle of the campaign was the seizure of over 100,000 cubic feet of illegal timber worth billions of rupees. This is now being transparently auctioned with the proceeds used for expanding the afforestation programme in the province.
All these strong administrative actions not only pushed back the illicit timber trade but also created the space for nature to rebound. KPK’s dwindling forests are now naturally regenerating in community protected enclosures – with regeneration rates doubling in just two years (duly verified by WWF in its audit reports). The natural forests of the province have been divided into almost 4,000 community protected enclosures, with the communities enjoying the incentive of collecting the dead wood and also benefiting from green jobs as forest “nighabans”.
This community based model has created foot soldiers who have boldly confronted the timber mafia, with three brave guards having lain down their lives and one of them recognised in the honor roll of the International Rangers Federation.
The success of this drive is also evidenced by a remarkable statistic for 2016 when, for the first time ever, the KPK province imported 6,000 cubic feet of timber because none was available on the illicit black market. The “untouchable” timber mafia of KPK is no longer invincible and Pakistan’s largest forestry campaign has proven that where there’s a will there’s a way.