Between 1990 and 2015, Pakistan is witnessing deforestation at an unprecedented rate of 2.1 per cent per annum, says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
To address deforestation, several initiatives are being implemented by the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Punjab. In KPK, the Billion Trees Tsunami Afforestation Project (BTTAP) which aims to plant one billion trees has received international acclamation. They have been recognised under the Bonn Challenge. In Punjab, the provincial government has initiated a unique campaign to address deforestation and forest degradation and promote sustainable forestry investments by establishing South Punjab Forest Company (SPFC).
SPFC, a subsidiary of Punjab Forests and Wildlife Act, is supported by the Forest Amended Act 2016 and set to operate under the supervision of an autonomous board. It has been allotted 134,995 acres of land across six districts of South Punjab which includes Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh.
Forests in Punjab had been affected due to rapid industrialisation, increase in population, soaring demand for firewood, over-grazing, land conversion for agriculture purposes, demand for wood-based raw material and governance issues.
The idea of forests as a backbone of sustainable economies in Pakistan was coined by Sardar Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari, an MNA and Chairperson Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. He sensitised the provincial policy-makers about how sustainable forestry investments are meant to save the existing forests of Punjab. Established under section 42 of the Companies Ordinance 1984, as public sector company, the SPFC streamlines public and private sector investments to reduce deforestation in Punjab and to combine forest conservation with sustainable economic development. The SPFC aims to encourage investments in assets that can be established and managed on an environmentally and socially sustainable basis.
The company has been assigned a blank area of 134,995 acres of Punjab’s Forestry, Wildlife & Fisheries Department, which comes under the category of riverine forests, relying mainly on groundwater. The three pillars of SPFC’s business philosophy include social and environmental sustainability, a balanced portfolio of wood fibre end-uses, and cost and quality competitive projects.
According to Tahir Rasheed, SPFC’s head, “The company is engaging the wood-based industry to make investments in the forestry sector, while addressing the ecological concerns. Furthermore, the SPFC aims to build a diversified timberland portfolio in terms of age, class and species, and focuses on fast growing trees which are not invasive in nature. Given the increasing demand for wood and the growing commitment to better manage the allotted areas, the SPFC is eager to offer attractive investment opportunities to the investors.”
Rasheed further sheds light on the increasing deforestation in Pakistan. “This initiative will not only ensure a sustainable supply of firewood, fodder, fibre, plywood, paper and pulp to meet the needs of the forest-based industry but also reduce the import bill of the country, promote green investments and create green jobs in the rural areas of South Punjab,” he says.
He adds that the company will maintain close coordination with key stakeholders, especially the conservation organizations, to address any environmental or ecological concerns. He believes that managing forests sustainably increases benefits, including timber and food, to meet society’s demands in order to support forest ecosystems, for present and future generations.
According to the chief conservator of forests in Sindh, Ijaz Nizamani, the fertile land of the country is an asset and it is important to seek investments for sustainable management purposes. He believes that “the establishment of SPFC is a welcome move and should be executed properly. The traditional role of forest officers also needs to be changed.” However the challenge still remains, as sustainable forest management has to be incentivised, because people with traditional mindsets are not willing to change.
Nizamani further said that the success of SPFC depends on the policies that are set up as well as the cooperation of local communities, who should be given an opportunity in the process, and the management should carefully implement the policies, which are critical to reducing any possible conflict. Furthermore, the forest officers should be empowered, so that their involvement in the process increases and everyone strives for a common goal.
Nizamani informed that they were also trying to bring this initiative in Sindh from the last 15 years but in vain, due to vested interests. “We have written to the Public Private Partnership (PPP) but await their response. Apparently they don’t have the capacity to respond,” he said.
Ibrahim Khan, Senior Manager of WWF Pakistan, welcomed the initiative and regarded SPFC as the engine of change which will help to promote community partnership, especially green entrepreneurship in the province. Khan also suggested engaging the small and medium farmers, and working on marketing chains to ensure the long-term sustainability of the initiative.
Sustainable forest management offers multiple benefits, as it addresses forest degradation and deforestation, while providing benefits to the communities and the ecosystem.
The ‘Forest Principles’ adopted at United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 coined the idea of Sustainable Forest Management. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Non-Legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests. The instrument reflects the strong international commitment to promote the implementation of sustainable forest management, through an integrated approach that brings stakeholders together.
The establishment of SPFC has received a warm response from foresters, who are optimistic of its future. They believe that it will be able to meet its objectives, if it stays away from political interference. Also, by ensuring water availability during critical growth stage of seedlings with ample protection, the company will be able to achieve successful croppings. A strong monitoring and evaluation mechanism will also help to identify and subsequently rectify problems at an early stage. It is imperative to recognise that forests can help eradicate poverty, and help increase water and food security.
SPFC aims to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals point 15: Life on land. This revolves around managing forest sustainably, restoring degraded lands and combating desertification. The initiative will eventually contribute to reducing pressure on existing forests, promoting sustainable forestry investments, directly contributing to poverty alleviation, reducing burden on the national exchequer, supplying wood-based raw material to the industry and indirectly contributing to watershed management and the restoration of Suleiman range.