Rising up 28,000 feet from the shores of the Arabian Sea to the summit of K2, Pakistan has the greatest change of elevation of any sovereign state on Earth, and a range of landscapes to match. But a history of poor management, illegal logging, natural disasters, overgrazing and natural resource exploitation has left Pakistan with only 5.4 % forest cover and one of the highest deforestation rates in the region. The knock-on effects of this degradation have hit the poorest people in the country the hardest and depleted precious resources that communities depend upon.
To address this, Pakistan launched a massive reforestation project in 2014 and became the first country to exceed its Bonn Challenge targets for 2013. This was driven mainly by an initiative to add 350,000 hectares of trees in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both by planting and natural regeneration, and to bring 160,000 hectares of degraded forest land under improved management. It also created a network of private tree nurseries across the region, boosting local incomes and creating jobs, including for women and unemployed young people. An independent audit from WWF-Pakistan found a 75-85% tree survival rate; and the restored areas are expected to sequester some 1.7 million tonnes of additional carbon each year.
WWF-Pakistan has been closely involved in restoration efforts, with a focus on community-based natural resource management and engaging government agencies in co-managed areas. From mangrove swamps to mountain tops, WWF has been running on-the-ground regeneration projects with local communities and monitoring the implementation of the national forest policy.
Since August 2019, WWF has planted more than 1.6 million trees under various projects, creating 1,600 hectares of new forest area. But the work is not just about headline tree numbers: forest landscape restoration (FLR) is a complex process that involves many different dynamics and stakeholders, and the diverse issues involved must be incorporated into solutions at a large-scale landscape level. Planting trees is often an effective direct action, for example in deploying native seedlings to stabilize deforested slopes in mountain regions prone to landslides, or in protecting and replanting mangrove forests for carbon sequestration and coastal protection; but just as important are projects which focus on reducing the pressures on remaining forest lands and enhancing their natural goods and services.
A case in point is WWF’s work to conserve the world’s largest contiguous chilghoza forest in the Suleiman Range in central Pakistan, which had been degraded by decades of commercial logging and domestic firewood collection. Chilghoza trees are worth more alive than dead: they produce prized pine nuts used in recipes the world over, and WWF has been training local nut collectors to increase harvest efficiency, decrease waste, and improve processing, in turn creating sustainable long-term livelihoods which depend on looking after natural forest resources. In addition, planting of chilghoza seeds has increased and areas have been fenced off for natural regeneration. WWF has also been working to create new markets for the olives and wild pistachios that thrive in the area.
The same principles underly the work WWF has been coordinating to restore an ecosystem of a very different kind: the once-extensive mangrove forests of the Indus delta. When healthy, mangroves provide habitats and nursery grounds for many species, including commercial fish stocks. They nourish fertile agricultural land, protect the coast from erosion, storms and flooding and are a highly effective source of blue carbon sink. In Pakistan, more than 500,000 people rely directly on the ecosystem services they provide. But these mangroves have been badly degraded by rising sea levels, reduced freshwater, pollution and overgrazing; and have been widely cut for firewood by poor communities.
WWF has been working closely with local communities and civil society organizations to restore mangrove habitats, using participatory and co-managed approaches. WWF introduced hard interventions including insulated plastic containers (reducing post-harvest losses), fishing nets with sustainably sized meshes, and renewable energy, which allowed the communities to engage with all relevant stakeholders – including camel and livestock herders – to protect 13,000 hectares of mangrove forests. This delta-wide success led to ecosystem restoration and improvements in key biodiversity areas – in particular in the biomass of shellfish species – which increased fish catches and market access.
Restoration can also add to the ecological and economic value of degraded agricultural land. A WWF agroforestry project in the province of Punjab entails working with cotton-farming communities to integrate trees and fruit orchards into the cropping system, with the growing saplings helping to conserve soil, nutrients, water and biodiversity, and becoming a valuable carbon sink in their own right. The project includes skill development and gender empowerment for local people, who earn additional income from the trees planted.
“WWF-Pakistan’s experience shows that efforts to renew nature have to go hand in hand with sustainable development, guided by a long-term vision for the whole landscape, one which aims to create new livelihoods and economic benefits at the same time as restoring and sustainably managing species and habitats,” says Rab Nawaz, Senior Director, WWF-Pakistan. “For any project to succeed, all stakeholders need to be engaged in the process, from government and civil society to activists and local communities. I’m proud that WWF are in the middle of that process. Together, we are making a real difference.”
As the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration – the launch of which is hosted by Pakistan – kicks off this year, we face the practical challenge of delivering ambitious commitments in the real world. Experiences in Pakistan show that implementation needs to involve all actors, including local communities, and must be done at a landscape level to be effective. Pakistan’s example should be an inspiring one.