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Opinion

April 30, 2017

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Forests and sustainability

Forests and sustainability

Pakistan’s forest cover constitutes approximately 4.8 percent of its total land area, which is some 4.224 million hectares. Farmland consists of 466,000 hectares and other linear plantings along road and canal sides that are restricted to 16,000 hectares do not bear legal or ecological significance.

The Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project intends to increase Pakistan’s forest cover by two percent. Although the billion tree tsunami project is commendable, it remains to be seen whether this project has been initiated in a manner that accounts for the ecological needs of the country. There is much speculation over what exactly is being planted.

Reports have stated that ‘imported’ plants are being added to the forest cover in addition to native species. It has been stated that the number of safeda (eucalyptus) trees to be planted has increased by 48.5 percent due to the lack of native saplings. If the eucalyptus trees are being added as forest cover in an already water-stressed nation, then this ‘tsunami’ spells disaster.

The eucalyptus tree is an invasive species brought to the Subcontinent from Australia and has taken over our landscape owing to its ability to grow fast. It provides strong wood and has other medicinal uses. However, it is a tree adapted to the ecology of Australia where there is a complete dearth of water. The tree grows its roots deep into the soil and extracts water from all edges of the land.

In Pakistan, underground water accessibility fell from between 20 to 30 feet, down to 800 feet due to the excessive use of tube wells. These trees also release compounds that inhibit other plant species from growing nearby – a phenomenon that is called allelopathy. 

In addition, the oil that the tree produces is highly flammable – a large-scale forest fire is the last thing the country needs. The tree is also known for its falling heavy branches, which could prove to be fatal to forest dwellers. In addition, the trees cannot survive frost and cold temperatures. As a result, the time and resources spent on planting such forests will only prove to be futile.

The northern regions of Pakistan consist of subtropical, broad-leaved evergreen forests, sub-tropical pine forests, Himalayan moist temperate forests, Himalayan dry temperate forests, subalpine and alpine scrub forests. These include tree species such as kau, chir pine, white oak, spruce, fir, deodar, chalghoza, birch and sumbul.

Without studying or understanding the ecology of the land area, trees and other vegetation cannot be blindly planted. The species must be planted as per the region and the present forest cover so that they may be regenerated as per their natural history. The introduction of new, non-native species of plants and animals can have dire effects for the environment.

One of the earliest examples is the accidental release of gypsy moths in 1869 by a scientist in the US – who was rearing the species for a possible chance to produce silk – during the civil war that halted the cotton trade. The civil war ended, the silk produced by the gypsy moth was virtually useless and interests to invest in a silk industry in North America declined.

However, the economic impact of the disastrous effects of the gypsy moth was paramount. The moth fed on native trees, causing massive amounts of defoliation that, by extension, killed about 25 percent to 30 percent of trees. This gave way for species unaffected by the moth to prosper and changed the rules for ‘survival of the fittest’. The hair on the caterpillars also caused hives and rashes among locals. 

The process of eliminating the presence of this moth was undertaken with the use of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) which destroyed and affected other flora and fauna species. They also tried to eradicate the problem by introducing a parasitic fly, which thrived and affected more species but did not affect the moth. This culminated in a new environmental movement as started by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A staggering $764 million were spent on this eradication, but to no avail. This invasion exemplifies that there are huge costs to public health, the economy, ecology and culture.

As it is, climate change already jeopardises how and when our forests grow. We cannot further exacerbate the problem by promoting the growth and regeneration of invasive species. What forest managers can do is take advantage of some of the climatic changes, such as irregular heavy rainfall, to encourage the growth of the national temperate forests. Another is the availability of finances and knowledge that are now available in the international world for afforestation efforts.

According to the Climate Change Guidelines for Forest Managers, Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) is a global initiative and its implementation requires at the national or sub-national level enabling policies, laws and institutions and sound management that is based on strong science and traditional knowledge. It involves seven thematic elements: the extent of forest resources, forest biodiversity, forest health and vitality, the productive functions of forest resources, the protective functions of forest resources, the socio-economic functions of forests and the legal policy and institutional framework.

All stakeholders – including the state, district or local authorities, forest managers, forest-dependent communities, forest research organisations, NGOs/civil society organisations, forest extension agencies, academic institutions, forest producers and trade associations – should be involved in adaptive strategies. This will ensure the steady flow of new skills, knowledge and expertise that could steer informed decision-making and strategies.

In addition to caring for the forests of the northern regions, we must begin the conservation and preservation of our littoral and swamp forests, tropical dry deciduous forests and tropical thorn forests. These efforts must be initiated by the respective provincial governments in forests that fall under the relevant jurisdictions.

Plants predate human existence by 100 million years and their biological evolution has been one of the greatest processes in the earth’s history. The distinct and uniquely individual species of plants provide for the specific topography and climate of its region. As it is, out of 400,000 species of plants, 34,000 species are threatened and on the IUCN red list of threatened species. This is due to man’s Anthropocene pursuit to continuously extract from the natural world through unsustainable means.

The writer has a master’s degree in environmental conservation from New York University.

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