By Chris Lang
At the end of April 2020, Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that Pakistan was employing people who had lost their jobs because of the coronavirus to plant trees. The article quoted Malik Amin Aslam Khan, climate change advisor to the prime minister, as saying that, “This tragic crisis provided an opportunity and we grabbed it. Nurturing nature has come to the economic rescue of thousands of people.”
The World Economic Forum (which recently launched a One Trillion Trees Initiative) produced a short video promoting Pakistan’s tree planting programme:
“Triple win – good for climate, good for nature, good for jobs”, Erik Solheim, the ex-head of UNEP, commented on Twitter. Solheim, of course, was forced to resign from UNEP after running up an enormous carbon footprint.
If alarm bells aren’t ringing by now, you really haven’t been paying attention.
Tree planting jobs, for less than the minimum wage
The tree planting is part of Pakistan’s “10 Billion Trees Tsunami”, launched in 2018 by Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan.
In April 2020, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan announced an exemption to the country’s coronavirus lockdown to allow the 10 Billion Trees campaign to restart. Government officials told Thomson Reuters Foundation that restarting the programme would create more than 63,000 jobs.
It isn’t clear whether these are jobs that already existed before the coronavirus, or whether these are additional jobs. The Pakistan Institute of Development Economics estimates that the lockdown could result in 19 million people losing their jobs.
Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to a daily wage worker in Punjab who was unemployed because of the coronavirus crisis. He was now earning 500 rupees per day planting trees. That’s about half of what he could earn on a good day before the coronavirus – better than nothing, but it’s still less than the minimum wage for unskilled workers in Punjab.
The Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project
The 10 Billion Trees Tsunami followed a Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project (BTTAP) that started in 2014 in the country’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The US$169 million programme added a total of 350,000 hectares of trees through tree planting and regeneration. In August 2017, Inger Andersen, Director General of IUCN described the Billion Tree Tsunami as “a true conservation success story”.
Incidentally, Malik Amin Aslam Khan, climate change advisor to Imran Khan and tree planting proponent, is also the Global Vice President of IUCN.
In March 2018, Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau launched an inquiry into corruption in the BTTAP. In January 2020, it reported that it had investigated payments for ghost plantations, misappropriation and embezzlement of daily wages, nepotism, and favouritism in selection of nurseries. In total, the National Accountability Bureau found that about US$3 million had been lost to corruption under the project.
Exclusion and marginalisation
In June 2017, Usman Ashraf carried out research in the Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for his masters degree at the International Institute of Social Studies, in the Netherlands. Ashraf is now a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki.
The plantations established under the BTTAP covered an area of 250,000 hectares of government fallow land, communal land, and private land. The project also created about 3,500 enclosures in state-owned forests. Previously people had used these forests for grazing, as well as collecting dead wood and non-timber forest products (NTFPs). These enclosures were closed for three consecutive years to grazing, collecting of wood and NTFPs, and even access rights were forbidden.
In a 2019 article in Economic & Political Weekly, Ashkar describes “the dynamics of exclusion and marginalisation that have disproportionately affected the communities in KPK”.
The forest department offered subsidies to landowners to plant trees on their land. The landowners received free seedlings and could choose which species they wanted to plant. Most chose eucalyptus, because it grows quickly. After five years, the landowner could cut the trees and sell the timber. In designing its subsidy programme, the forest department simply assumed that everyone in the province owned land.
Landowners have also taken their land back from tenants, so that they can establish plantations on the land.
Ashraf points out that, “the people who are most dependent on forests for their livelihood are landless herders.” Under the BTTAP, many of them have lost access to land and now have no land they can use as pasture during the winter.
Ashraf tells the story of one herder, Amir, whose father had 150 goats. In 2015, their landowner contracted with the forest department to establish a tree plantation on the land. As a result, Amir’s family lost access to the land and could no longer feed their goats. They tried to get another plot of land, but everyone wanted to plant trees on their plots of land. Buying fodder from the market was too expensive.
Under the BTTAP, grazing in state-owned reserve forest was no longer an option. They started selling goats to raise money to buy fodder for the herd. But eventually, the family gave up trying to keep goats and sold the entire herd. Amir started working as a construction labourer, but found little work. His brother moved to a nearby city where he worked in his uncle’s shop. The father stayed at home looking after the only cow they had left.
Ashraf writes that,
It is perplexing that efforts to mitigate climate change (afforestation in this case) are the reason for destroying the livelihoods of many people.