High peaks, glaciated valleys and coniferous forests. No, this isn’t the Alps, this is the Swat district in northeast Pakistan. Nicknamed the Switzerland of Asia, Swat is home to moist temperate coniferous forests similar to those found in north-west America and Scotland. However, in a country with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, the district’s forests have been reduced from vast, green swathes to isolated fragments. Now, only four per cent of its woodlands are intact.
To combat this, the ‘one billion tree tsunami’ has been proposed by the local government to revitalise and protect the forests. One billion saplings will be planted to convert 30,000 hectares of land into forest every year until 2018. While it is a grand and over-ambitious initiative, it represents an overall transition in Pakistan from the idea using trees as revenue to using trees as natural capital.
Much of the reforestation will take place in the upper valleys, which have suffered the most logging. ‘For the last 35 years, Swat has been home to millions of Afghan refugees and internally displaced people from other parts of Pakistan,’ explains Claude Rakisits, non-resident senior fellow at the Washington-based South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council. ‘Accordingly, these refugees living in camps have devastated the environment in their search for firewood to cook and keep warm.’ By reforesting these areas, the government hopes to bring revenue to local nurseries as well as much needed flood protection from the Indus river watershed.
‘From a national point of view,’ explains Gideon Kruseman, a development and environmental economist, ‘the Swat valley trees are important in terms of the Indus river watershed management, especially in the upper parts of the valley which are more sparsely populated.’ In July 2010, a devastating flood wreaked damage and took close to 2,000 lives, something that could have been buffered had there been better forests in the upper valley.
‘From a global perspective,’ Kruseman adds, ‘deforestation is conducive to global warming’. The reforestation programme therefore also represents one aspect of Pakistan’s ongoing climate concerns.
This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine