Pakistan turns unemployed workers into tree planters

Poplar trees in Hunza Valley, Pakistan
CC BY-SA 4.0 Noumanghouri – Poplar trees in Hunza Valley, Pakistan

The country's ambitious reforestation project has received a surprise influx of laborers, thanks to coronavirus.

In 2018, Pakistan pledged to plant ten billion trees in an effort to slow climate change and to replenish a landscape that has been decimated by decades of deforestation, livestock grazing, and drought. It was an ambitious goal, but as the Washington Post reported at the time, "the idea of a green awakening seems to be taking root... The concept appeals to a new generation of better-educated Pakistanis, and it has sparked excitement on social media."

That program, whose name is 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, has been chugging along for the past two years, but it recently received an unexpected infusion of help from – of all things – the coronavirus. Many Pakistanis are suddenly unemployed, so the government has given them jobs as tree-planters. Unemployed day laborers have been turned into "jungle workers," planting saplings for 500 rupees a day ($3), which is roughly half of what a construction worker would normally earn. It's not a lot, but it's enough to get by, and that can mean the difference between survival and starvation. Al Jazeera reported,

"As the coronavirus pandemic struck Pakistan, the 10 Billion Trees campaign was initially halted as part of social distancing orders put in place to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 14,880 people in Pakistan, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. But earlier this month, the prime minister granted an exemption to allow the forestry agency to restart the programme and create more than 63,600 jobs, according to government officials."

The program is employing three times the number of planters as it normally does, and the planting season has been extended from May (its usual end) throughout June, in order to keep workers employed. Most of these jobs have been created in rural areas and have "a focus on hiring women and unemployed daily workers – mainly young people – who were migrating home from locked-down cities." All workers are being told to wear masks and maintain two meters of distance from others.

Shahid Rashid Awan, project director for Punjab province, told Al Jazeera that 30 million indigenous saplings have been planted in the province so far; these include mulberry, acacia and moringa trees. He said the project hopes to reach 50 million trees this year, thanks to the extra hands. "We can absorb all the unemployed labourers and workers who have fled the cities and returned to their villages in the past few weeks. This is unskilled work."

A study published in Science last summer declared tree-planting to be an effective way to capture and store carbon, and if planted in large quantities around the globe, a powerful solution to climate change. While it won't fix every climate-related problem we have, it can go a long way if implemented on a wide scale, which is precisely what Pakistan is trying to do with such impressive determination.

And the workers will benefit greatly, too. Not only are they able to earn money and support their families at a difficult time, but they're outside in the fresh air, away from the potential contamination of more tightly-packed urban environments. It's a brilliant idea that all country leaders should consider copying.

Pakistan turns unemployed workers into tree planters
The country's ambitious reforestation project has received a surprise influx of laborers, thanks to coronavirus.

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