Earthly matters: Can Pakistan’s forests be saved?
We all know that forests act as carbon sinks; trees absorb carbon while they are growing, and store it while they are mature. They release it when they decay or are burnt. Hence the cutting of trees and the clearing of forests around the world are causing the emission of heat trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, deforestation contributes between 12 to 20pc of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second-largest source of emissions caused by humans (after the burning of fossil fuels).
Forests are therefore important in any initiative to combat climate change. The idea of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries or REDD was introduced in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bali in 2007. REDD proposes that forests are more valuable standing than cut down. They serve as water catchments, as homes for biodiversity and indigenous peoples and as carbon storage. It would make sense for the world to start paying for these free, living services rather than clearing the forests for logging and turning them into plantations (or agricultural land). At the UN climate change conference held in Warsaw recently, it was decided that: “adequate and predictable payments should go to the Global South to stop deforestation. REDD is to be carried out in phases”.
Thanks to remote imaging via satellites, it is now much easier to measure the amount of forest cover in any given country. In Pakistan, our tree cover is decreasing at an alarming rate — massive deforestation started in the 1990s as remote areas opened up with the construction of roads, and it has not ceased. The greatest victims are the conifer forests in the Himalayan belt where trees are cut and sold to contractors (part of the notorious timber mafia). Today even the amount of forest cover in the country is under dispute; according to the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar, the percentage of forests in the country is 5.02pc. Others estimate it is as low as 3.4pc. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) says it is only 2.2pc (1.687 million hectare) of which just 20.2pc (340k hectare is primary forest). According to the FAO, Pakistan lost 840,000 hectare of forest cover between 1990 and 2010 and the rate of loss of forests is 42,000 ha per year.
The good news is that Pakistan has recently won $3.8 million Readiness Fund of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) to combat climate change and tropical deforestation. Eight new countries including Pakistan were selected for the FCPF fund after Norway pledged $100m to the fund. The FCPF is the World Bank administered facility that is set up under REDD+ to compensate developing countries for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions achieved by preserving their forests. Initially designed to benefit countries with rainforests, REDD+ now covers all developing countries. The plus sign has been added to REDD because activists have succeeded in trying to address the rights of indigenous forest communities and biodiversity at later UNFCCC meetings. These issues were finally recognised as “safeguards”, or conditions that the countries were required to meet to qualify for REDD+.
The two-member delegation that defended Pakistan’s Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP) at the meeting held in Geneva last December included Inspector General of Forests Syed Mahmood Nasir and Director Biodiversity Programme Naeem Ashraf Raja. “It was tough but we got it,” says Nasir. “This is a readiness preparation grant, not a loan. Systems will be made to make Pakistan ready for REDD+”. Under Nasir’s leadership since 2010, a lot of preparation work has already been done with consultative workshops held in all the provinces about REDD+ and focal persons identified. Earlier in 2007, the Clean Development Mechanism cell had put up Pakistan’s request for the FCPF funding but it was not given at the time owing to the weak proposal. Later, the IG Forests’ Office was asked to prepare the proposal; it finally won the approval of the Technical Advisory Panel of the World Bank in Geneva in 2013.
“There are a lot of obstacles in Pakistan when it comes to preserving our forests — governance issues, role of the powerful timber mafia, etc.” says Nasir. “But we have to try, there is no option. Also, those who designed this mechanism, they did not do it overnight. It was done after decades of working with developing countries involving thousands of experts”. The REDD+ Preparation project intends to develop a REDD+ strategy, establish institutional arrangements for REDD+ implementation, assess land use changes, forest law, policy and governance and design safeguards and a monitoring system. REDD+ is designed to help countries get dollars for the carbon saved in forests by not cutting trees. The tonnes of carbon emitted from deforestation in Pakistan is massive and for each tonne saved the country can get between $4-12 billion per annum if it performs well with the readiness grant.
Nasir remains optimistic about what REDD+ can achieve, although there is some talk of shutting down the IG Forests Office for being “redundant” under the 18th Amendment. He points out: “Both India and Pakistan inherited the same legal system under the Government of India Act 1935 according to which forestry was a provincial subject while at the central level a coordinating office was established (IG Forests). Indira Gandhi brought forests into the concurrent list of the constitution of India. This empowered the federal government to take action whereas prior to that in both countries forestry was never on the concurrent list. In Pakistan there is a misunderstanding that forestry has been developed as a result of a constitutional amendment. The Indian federal government enacted the Forest Act of 1980 — this act provides that no provincial government can convert forest land to any other use without the consent of the federal government”. Today India has successfully increased its forest cover to 23pc while our forests continue to shrink.