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Punjab’s dwindling forests

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is premised on the belief that the world would be a better place for our children if we act responsibly.

The 2030 Agenda duly recognises the role of women and the youth in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is tantamount to national progress and inclusive development, and ensures that nobody is left behind.

The 17 SDGs and 169 targets demonstrate the scale and ambition of the new universal agenda by building on the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs are a key to steer the country towards climate-compatible development and are instrumental in addressing environmental issues, including rising temperatures, heatwaves, cyclones and glacial lake outburst floods. We must, therefore, realise that development is equitable and ignoring environmental concerns can take a toll on human welfare.

Forests have a critical role to play in achieving SDGs by offering environmental benefits. This can be done by reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation as well as adapting and mitigating the impact of climate change. With a surge in population rates, commercial forestry has proved to be a vital asset in meeting the wood requirements and reducing logging pressure on natural forests.

If forests are not conserved, there will be drastic consequences that include the substantial release of approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of greenhouse gases (GHGs). We must not forget that the level of carbon emissions in the atmosphere has crossed 410 parts per million (PPM), which is the highest level of carbon dioxide in 800,000 years. An uptick in carbon dioxide levels emboldens the reality that even if the emissions are brought down to zero, the existing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are sufficient to continue cooking the planet for many years to come.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the basic forest cover of a country should be 25 percent. However, when it comes to Pakistan, the Forestry Sector Master Plan (FSMP) of 1992 stated that Pakistan’s forest cover was 4.8 percent. Due to unprecedented deforestation, changes in land use, desertification, and sheer ignorance from the relevant authorities, the national forest cover of Pakistan has been reduced to 1.9 percent over the years, according to the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The deforestation rate in Pakistan from 1990 to 2015 was unprecedented, with a rate of 2.1 percent – the highest in Asia.

However, the silver lining is that several forestry government-led initiatives – including the Green Pakistan Programme, the Billion Trees Tsunami Afforestation Project, and the commercial forestry initiative of the South Punjab Forest Company (SPFC) – have significantly helped achieve many of the SDGs targets.

SPFC aims to save natural forests in Punjab by promoting afforestation, which will help meet the demands of the wood-based industry. The company is offering 134,995 acres of land across Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh and D G Khan districts of southern Punjab for a period of 15 years.

Proposals will be solicited from investors to grow trees on a commercial basis and earn sustainable returns. The investors will grow trees and harvest them in order to be supplied to various industries – including the particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and medicine industries.

As the project operates on a produce-sharing mode, with a minimum government share of 15 percent, the land is given to an investor who offers the highest bid to the government. After the project duration of 15 years, the land will be transferred back to the government and bidding proposals will once again be solicited.

After detailed studies by an independent transaction adviser, it has been revealed that SPFC’s initiative will help to achieve global goals –including, but not limited to, the first SDG goal of ending poverty. The vast afforestation and range management drive on 99,077 acres of land in southern Punjab will lead to the afforestation of 40 million trees. This will result in the influx of Rs240 billion in the economy. The move will contribute towards alleviating poverty in Punjab. It is hoped that by 2030, the project will help end poverty in the province.

Ensuring inclusive and equitable education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all – which is the fourth goal of the SDGs – will be met through the initiative. SPFC is mobilising students of forestry and the environment to conduct research on its project areas to ensure that the field of commercial forestry and range management prospers.

The company is conducting detailed discussions with various educational institutions to encourage students of environmental sciences to research the various dimensions of forestry. The organisation has signed MOUs with the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and the Pir Mehr Ali Shah Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi and is also seeking partnerships with the universities in southern Punjab to promote forestry research.

The eighth goal of the SDGs – to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth; full and productive employment; and decent work for all – focuses on reducing unemployment, improving access to financial services, and sustainable development. The feasibility study conducted by SPFC’s transaction adviser highlights that the initiative will lead to the economic uplift of the province whereas the Punjab government will earn profits worth Rs20 billion and culminate in the creation of approximately 15,000 direct and indirect green jobs. This will ensure sustained economic growth and productive employment for the people of southern Punjab.

The most important contribution of the project is that it will help achieve Goal 13 of the SDGs – taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Around 40 million trees will be planted during the project duration, which will help absorb approximately 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and assist the government of Pakistan in achieving the targets specified in the Nationally-Determined Contributions.

The project will also contribute to achieve Goal 15 of the SDGs – protect, restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; sustainably manage forests; combat desertification; and halt and reverse land degradation and biodiversity losses. The project aims to afforest the blank forest areas of the government of Punjab in southern Punjab.

Over the past few decades, these forest areas have suffered from deforestation and land degradation; grazing pressure; encroachments by land mafia; and lack of attention. Therefore, this project will afforest these areas once again and promote the sustainable use of forest resources and combat desertification.

The initiative also aspires to conserve wildlife, as a minimum 25 percent of SPFC’s share will comprise indigenous tree species that will not be felled during the project duration and contribute to the forest cover of Punjab.

After thorough due diligence, 99,077 acres of land spreading across 189 projects in Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh and DG Khan were advertised in July and August last year. Of these projects, investors applied for 124 projects. The letter of award has been given to the highest bidders and the project has received a nod from the Public-Private Partnership steering committee and the provincial cabinet to go ahead with the initiative. Soon after the approval of the technical afforestation plans of investors, the concession agreement between the SPFC and successful bidders will be signed. After this process, the land will be transferred to investors to start forestry activities.

This is a smart move that seeks to halt deforestation by promoting sustainable forestry, which can meet the national wood demand and also conserve flora and fauna. It can be hoped that the dwindling forests of Punjab will once again be revived through this initiative.

Email: s.m.abubakar@hotmail.com

Twitter: @SyedMAbubakar

Syed Muhammad Abubakar, "Punjab’s dwindling forests," The News. 2018-06-05.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Environmental issues , Environmental benefits , Environmental concerns , Climate change , Temperatures , Heatwaves , Cyclones , Pir Mehr Ali Shah , Rajanpur , Muzaffargarh , SPFC , SDG