By Rina Saeed Khan
ISLAMABAD, March 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is aiming to fight climate change and pollution by planting trees on government land clawed back from politically connected landlords who have illegally profited from it for years.
Last month, Khan inaugurated the first nature reserve and wildlife park on such reclaimed land at Balloki Headworks on the River Ravi in Nankana Sahib district, about an hour's drive from the city of Lahore.
On Feb. 9, he planted the first of 652,500 saplings, mainly local species, to be put in by April on 1,500 acres (607 hectares) which had previously been turned into farm fields.
Khan has promised to plant 10 billion trees across the country over the next five years.
He hopes to scale up the success of the "Billion Tree Tsunami" in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where his party, which runs the province, has been protecting existing forests and planting new trees since 2013.
His climate change advisor, Malik Amin Aslam, said the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa push had won out against the timber mafia – groups responsible for illegal logging - in an area with abundant natural forests, which suck planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it.
"Now we want to succeed with the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami by taking on the land mafia in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province which does not have many surviving forests," Aslam added.
Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf political party also governs Punjab.
In the Balloki Nature Reserve, which will soon have legal protection, a forest will be planted on 1,500 acres and a wildlife sanctuary with hog deer and partridge established on about 1,000 acres.
The British built the headworks there in 1906 to provide irrigation water to farmland in nearby districts.
But in the last 20 years, the state-owned land was grabbed by powerful locals, including National Assembly members from all major political parties, Aslam said.
Water volumes in the River Ravi shrank over the years, due to increasing demand for irrigation from a growing population.
Since the early 2000s, landlords and politicians began turning areas previously set aside for river flooding into fields, while the Irrigation Department turned a blind eye, Aslam said.
Almost 2,500 acres were planted with crops such as rice and sugarcane, bringing in an estimated income of almost 100 million rupees ($717,600) per year to those who had parcelled up the land.
The illegal takeover of government-owned floodplains is quite widespread in Punjab and Sindh, said Hammad Naqi Khan, CEO of WWF-Pakistan.
"In many cases there are influential politicians behind it who take over the land and give it to tenants to farm," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Farmers either pay rent or hand over a share of the crops they grow.
The cutting down of riverine forests and encroachment of human activities on flood-prone areas have resulted in a high loss of life when major floods hit, as in 2010, he added.
Nankana Sahib Deputy Commissioner Raja Mansoor Ahmed said the Punjab government had launched the anti-encroachment drive last October, taking back possession of the land.
Local farmers, aware they had been using the land illegally for many years, did not protest the move. But they were granted permission by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to harvest the rice and sugarcane they had planted on it, Ahmed said.
Now, a legal process is underway to recover 20 years of rent arrears for illegal use of the land from 80 politicians and landlords, he added.
Advisor Aslam said the reaction of the "land mafia", as they are known, had been subdued. "What else can they do? They face a large recovery suit... They will have to adjust to the new reality," he said.
Their tenant farmers, meanwhile, must look for fields to rent elsewhere as is the custom.
Above-average rainfall this spring has helped the prime minister's "Plant for Pakistan" drive.
The Balloki Nature Reserve has started coming back to life, and the results will be seen in the next three to four years, Aslam said.
The aim is to apply the model to encroached areas of other river basins, including the Taunsa Barrage on the Indus and Sulemanki Headworks on the Sutlej.
"We want to get government-owned land back, and restore riverine forests and wetlands all over Punjab," Aslam said, estimating that thousands of acres had been encroached upon in the last few decades.
Pakistan lost an average of 43,000 hectares of forests – equal to half the size of Islamabad - every year between 2000 and 2010, according to WWF-Pakistan.
With only 2 percent of its forest cover remaining, the country's deforestation rate is the highest in Asia, the environmental group said.
The Sindh Forest Department and green groups have recently launched a scheme to plant about 2 billion trees across that province in the next five years, Pakistani media reported.
At the Balloki inauguration, the prime minister spoke about visiting as a child large forests in parts of Punjab, which have now all but disappeared.
WWF's Naqi Khan said pilferage had ruined the once-healthy plantations. "Government departments involved with local people and some outsiders cut the trees and sold them," he said.
The prime minister told journalists 70 percent of Pakistan's forests had been cut down in the past few years, creating "an imbalance in our environment".
"We are now going to allow builders to build higher buildings, just so our cities stop expanding and encroaching on our forests," he added.
($1 = 139.3500 Pakistani rupees)
(Reporting by Rina Saeed Khan; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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