Pakistan is on its way to planting 10 billion trees. Here’s how

The massive initiative could pilot a new financial mechanism – and set an example for other developing countries

Trees reaching for the sky in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Muhammad Fahad khan, Unsplash
8 June 2021
8 June 2021

Pakistan is embarking on an ambitious plan: to plant 10 billion trees across the country by 2023, in order to restore landscapes while providing much-needed employment. Popularly known as the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, this project entails both planting and naturally regenerating forests, and might possibly serve as a pilot for other countries to use nature restoration goals to reduce national debt owed to foreign creditors.

The forestation drive was well underway as Pakistan hosted this year’s World Environment Day on 5 June, which also kicked off the formal launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030). Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Climate Change, said in a GLF Live interview that the first billion trees have already been grown under the initiative.

“Our government really feels that this is something we have to do for this generation and the next generation and the ones who come after that,” he said. “We took this option of planting trees because we believe in not fighting nature, but in making nature an ally to solve the issues that we have with nature.”

The 10 Billion Tree Tsunami began in 2018 and rides off the momentum of the previous Billion Tree Tsunami – the forest restoration campaign launched in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2014 under the administration of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party led by the current prime minister Imran Khan. According to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) audit, this earlier project was a success: 872.3 million seedlings were planted, with an average survival rate of almost 89 percent. It finished ahead of schedule and grew the province’s forests by 350,000 hectares, surpassing its commitment to the Bonn Challenge.

The ecological problems facing Pakistan are daunting. Pakistan, which has been rated as the world’s fifth country most affected by extreme weather from 1999 to 2018, is likely to see more erratic rainfall, the melting of Himalayan glaciers and greater heat. Although it has contributed relatively little to overall global carbon emissions, the world’s fifth most populous country is expected to be heavily affected by climate change and might face greater food and water insecurity, especially as agriculture employs roughly half the population and generates 24 percent of Pakistan’s GDP.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the success of the provincial forestation drive led to the development of the nation-wide 10 Billion Tree Tsunami. Tayyab Ejaz, Unsplash
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the success of the provincial forestation drive led to the development of the nation-wide 10 Billion Tree Tsunami. Tayyab Ejaz, Unsplash

Local lookout

Despite much of the country being arid, Pakistan is home to a variety of forest types, from mangroves to tropical thorn trees to Himalayan alpine forests. According to World Bank data, around 5 percent of Pakistan was covered in forest in 2016, a small reduction from its 6.4 percent of forest cover in 1991. These numbers are far lower than the world average of 31 percent. 

A growing population, animal grazing and illegal logging put pressure on Pakistan’s forests, even as the trees are essential catchment for reservoirs used for power generation and irrigation for agriculture. But Pakistan also underwent significant deforestation during the British colonial period to supply the railway industry with railroad ties and fuel, such as in Punjab.

According to the government, 1 billion trees have been planted so far across the country. However, the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami program involves both these planted forests, such as on marginal farmland, and naturally regenerated trees, including on government land. The structure of the current initiative is similar to that of the Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in which locals are paid to raise tree saplings on nurseries for plantation, while Village Development Councils appoint forest watchers – or nighabans – to look after parts of community forests enclosed for natural regeneration.

While native trees are primarily grown in naturally regenerated areas, a mix of native and non-native species will appear in plantations in community forests. Kamran Hussain, WWF-Pakistan’s regional head of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, emphasized that collaborating with local communities is necessary to reach forestation targets. He says that planting non-native eucalyptus trees, which are often favored for their fast growth and timber value, might have indirect benefits by reducing pressure on native forests. However, he urges communities to look beyond the short-term and grow native species for their long-term ecological benefits and natural adaptation to the local environment.

“Sometimes it’s really difficult to convince the community that these [native] species are equally important for them. They will improve the availability of clean water. They will enhance groundwater storage. They will protect them from flash floods and improve [soil] fertility,” says Hussain.

Usman Ashraf, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, remains skeptical of the environmental benefits of fast-growing species like eucalyptus, which the WWF audit found made up 19 percent of all trees grown during the Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: “The logic behind growing fast-growing species is not conserving the forest. It’s not fighting or mitigating climate change. The logic behind those fast-growing species is actually to cut them down in five years and then just go to the timber market. That’s it.”

Chir pine was the tree species most grown during the Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Nauman Sadiq, Wikimedia Commons
Chir pine was the tree species most grown during the Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Nauman Sadiq, Wikimedia Commons

New bond for new growth

The government has set aside more than USD 800 million for the forestation campaign over its four-year duration, with work affected by the growing seasons in Pakistan and the establishment of the massive logistics needed to coordinate the growth of so many trees. The 10 Billion Tree Tsunami is a part of the larger Clean Green Pakistan Movement, which was launched by the prime minister in 2018 and contains other goals such as improving access to drinking water and waste management.

Tree planting drives, however, are expensive, especially given Pakistan’s large public debt. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, the country’s external debt and liabilities totaled to over USD 122 billion by December 2020, or 40.5 percent of its GDP. In its 2020 fiscal year, Pakistan paid USD 2.35 billion in interest for its public debt, which was 9.6 percent of its net revenue.

To help fund the tree planting initiative, the Pakistani government is considering becoming a pilot for a novel type of debt relief in exchange for achieving nature conservation targets. Proposed by Finance for Biodiversity (F4B), the nature performance bond could allow a reduction of the debt or interest rate for new debt issued as long as progress is made toward nature-related activities – or the reinstatement of such if the landscape is degraded again.

What sets the nature performance bond apart from the debt-for-nature swaps popular in the 90s is that the debt relief applies to the country as a whole rather than a single environmental ministry or conservation organization, according to Mark Halle, an ambassador for F4B. He notes that there have been cases of debt-for-nature swaps that have given an area’s conservation projects large funding, but without helping other sectors such as education or healthcare.

“But in the nature performance bond, what happens is that the relief goes on the overall debt, which improves the country’s overall debt position,” says Halle. “It improves their credit rating and lowers the cost of capital, so it’s a kind of macroeconomic deal where the entire country benefits, and it benefits as a result of the conservation activity being completed.” 

He says that Pakistan may potentially become a pilot for the scheme, especially as support for the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami has reached up to the highest level of government. Given its novelty, F4B has stressed the need for performance indicators that are easy to measure and verify remotely, such as through satellite images, thus possibly cutting out the need for third-party verification. A robust and professional financial instrument must also be designed for the bonds to be traded in the first place.

For this nature performance bond concept to work, creditor countries must first sign on to it, which is not guaranteed because it is a relatively new idea. Halle says that F4B is talking with Italy, the U.K. and Germany, which have not committed to the idea but appear amenable to it. Support from China, Pakistan’s biggest creditor, would be a huge boon to the scheme, although Halle says that they would likely wait to see if the nature performance bonds work before committing to them.

Just last week, the U.K., Canada and Germany issued a joint statement to enter dialogue on the nature bond: “We are very thankful to them because they have taken a bold step. Pakistan has taken a bold step in this also,” said Aslam in the GLF Live. “It’s all good for nature, it’s all good for the world, and it’s all good for the message we want to take for [World] Environment Day.”

Another risk could appear if Pakistan’s leadership changes, and the new government is not as committed to the Clean Green Pakistan Movement. However, Halle adds that the international community should nevertheless be supportive of Pakistan’s recent enthusiasm for landscape restoration while helping the country tackle its crippling debt: “You get a kind of win-win situation of Pakistan’s debt being improved and its environment being improved. At the same time, it meets the objectives of the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification, so it hits a lot of buttons.”

Satellite images, such as this one of the Indus River Delta, could be used to monitor forestation efforts. eutrophication&hypoxia, Flickr
Satellite images, such as this one of the Indus River Delta, could be used to monitor forestation efforts. eutrophication&hypoxia, Flickr

Monitoring measures

Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change has launched a consortium made up of third parties – the WWF, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the IUCN – to audit the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, such as by undertaking assessments, providing technical assistance and monitoring. It has also been reported that the government might cooperate with the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission to use satellites to monitor the project.

According to Rebekah Bell, the FAO representative in Pakistan, the third-party monitoring is currently in the pilot phase and is being funded by KfW, the German development bank. Tracking the progress of the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami program will involve using geospatial techniques, on-the-ground monitoring and checking for quality regarding the tree planting, such as whether the right tree has been planted in the right place in a country with diverse landscapes.

“You’ve got the highest mountains in the world, the Hindu Kush. You’ve got drylands, irrigated lands, desert regions and all environments in between. And so each of those areas involves very localized and specific monitoring projects,” says Bell.

Ashraf, in his research on the socioeconomic repercussions of the Billion Tree Tsunami in a certain region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had also found evidence of nepotism and entrenched local power structures within the Village Development Councils. As the structural plan for the current 10 Billion Tree Tsunami is expected to be much the same, he predicts that the same issues will reappear again this time around.

“You are actually allowing the previous existing power structures to replicate in the same project,” he says. “The 10 Billion Tree Tsunami is nothing different at all in that sense, because it’s following a similar logic, it’s following the similar structures, and it’s following the similar institutions.” Ashraf’s research has also found that the forestation initiative ultimately upended the pastoral livelihoods of one ethnic group in the study area when the local landlords (who were of another ethnic group) converted their pastureland into forests to receive subsidies.

The areas enclosed for natural regeneration are typically closed to animal grazing. Adam Cohn, Flickr
The areas enclosed for natural regeneration are typically closed to animal grazing. Adam Cohn, Flickr

Growing trees, growing jobs

Immense human resources are needed to get those 10 billion trees in the ground, and one objective of the forestation project is to reduce unemployment, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) currently places at 5 percent. Although the World Bank notes that Pakistan is on the road to a “fragile economic recovery”, ongoing uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to dampen growth. 

So far, the Pakistani Ministry of Climate Change claims to have created nearly 85,000 jobs through the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami for locals, most of which are temporary, including the nursery and nighaban jobs. Many of these settings are outdoors and inherently socially distanced and thus have provided employment opportunities against the backdrop of the pandemic.

However, the human workforce needs to also be supplied with an enormous temporary supply of saplings, and this could pose a challenge. Hussain remembers from his experience with the Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that when the government declared that they would raise a billion trees in the province, the available seed stock was less than 10 percent of this number. 

“But [the government] took the initiative. They also started nurseries with the progressive farmers and especially to women-headed households,” says Hussain. “They gave them training. They gave them a small amount initially for purchasing parts, planting bags and seeds and all these things. It was a good source of creating green jobs.”

He notes, however, that a gap between supply and demand is likely to remain, and that plenty of extra staff and logistical support should be acquired to implement the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, or else forestry officials will have to devote more time implementing it on top of their routine duties.

Despite potential pitfalls, the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami remains a uniquely large-scale project, and a rare case of such a major environmental initiative receiving support from the highest levels of government. Its outcome could potentially serve as an example for other governments that are considering starting their own forestation campaigns of a similar scale.

“It’s going to take an incredible initiative,” says Bell. “I think there’s a lot to learn from such a large national-level forestry and reforestation program. I think it’s inspirational.”


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