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One plant a day keeps Pakistan’s debt away? Why Imran Khan is on a ‘smart forest’ drive

Even before he became PM, Imran Khan had been on a plantation drive, urging Pakistanis to do the same. But environmentalists and local people in Khyber weren't happy.

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New Delhi: Pakistan now has a ‘smart forest’, and it was inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday. But Khan has long been on a plantation drive, since 2014, when he launched the Billion Tree Tsunami project. As PM, though, he has brought a monetary angle to it, using the trees to seek loan waivers and reduce Pakistan’s debt.

The ‘success’ of the Billion Tree Tsunami project prompted Imran Khan to go for the next target – ‘10 Billion Tree Tsunami’, which even has its own Twitter account, @Plant4Pak.

This week, PM Khan planted a tree in Rakh Jhok forest in Sheikhupura in the Punjab province to inaugurate the country’s first ‘smart forest’. The official announcement on Twitter, which declared that the forest will be “equipped with technology sensors and surveillance systems”, quickly garnered attention, with users applauding the initiative to combat global warming.

#RakhJhokForest soon began to trend with words such as “smart sensors” and “surveillance systems” being widely used to express admiration for the project.

PM Khan has been urging citizens to plant more trees since the onset of monsoon as a part of a ‘nationwide activity’, even as the threat of a refugee influx from neighbouring Afghanistan looms large among other issues that spell trouble for Pakistan in the aftermath of Taliban takeover.

The inauguration of ‘smart forest’ comes on the same day that Pakistan reported its highest Covid-related deaths in over three months and a surge in infections. While Imran Khan talks of reducing pollution by following the largest urban Miyawaki forest project in the world (a technique to plant dozens of native species close together), it is yet to mitigate even a bigger health ‘Covid’ hazard.


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A debt-for-nature scheme

The Billion Tree Tsunami project is aimed at adding 350,000 hectares of trees to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. Though the PM, according to The Washington Post, has advocated it as an effort to address deforestation in the country, there have been many other factors at play.

In an opinion article he wrote for CNN in June on World Environment Day, Imran Khan talked about working with lender countries on a “debt-for-nature swap deal”, which entails loan waiver for Pakistan in exchange for its conservation efforts.

As per the Trading Economics website, Pakistan’s debt in the first quarter of 2021 has been $116,309 million, which has been ballooning under the Covid crisis, propelling the PM to keep debt-for-climate schemes as a priority of his government’s international agenda.

“There is a push post-Covid to ask for debt retirement and if we can link [relief] to nature performance, it gives more value to the world,” Malik Amin Aslam, Imran Khan’s official advisor on climate change, had told Climate Home News in April.


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Opposition to the project

Despite the celebration on social media around the benefits of “tree plantation drive”, ground realities have been different. In 2016, ecologists in Pakistan raised concerns about the implementation of the project, saying “wrong species for wrong places” would be identified. Dr Lal Badshah, a botany professor in Peshawar, had argued that the project amounted to “wasting nation’s money”. Moreover, there were allegations of corruption and environmental blunder.

Local people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have also been against it. A video that went viral last year showed a group uprooting trees planted by lawmakers and government volunteers. The protesters had removed around 6,000 new trees, saying they were “planted on private land”. The matter was later attributed to a land dispute.

So far, Pakistanis have largely supported the ‘smart forest’, listing it as another feather in PM Imran Khan’s cap. But how long can the government keep the momentum amid a deepening economic crisis owing to the country’s debt remains to be seen.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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