Tree planting is not enough

Moving beyond good intentions

I’ve witnessed my childhood paradise being transformed from a garden of Eden to a concrete and plastic covered desert. As I read in the news that this same country is now embarking on the biggest tree planting initiative on earth, my heart jumped. But I am also painfully aware of how poverty and destruction are linked.

When I first visited my fathers country Pakistan at the age of 6, it was 1983. I’m a skinny legged girl in a skirt. In my father’s house I meet brothers, cousins, aunts, grandparents and many more relatives that come with terminology that is hard to grasp (fathers-brothers-wife and grandfathers- brothers-daughter). But although I have never met them I feel instantly at home in the green courtyard under the pomegranate tree. Parrots squeaking mischievously as they take their chances to steel the ripe fruit. A scruffy dog that quickly becomes my friend, a few chickens and a goat. That is how most houses and courtyards look in the village. And when we walk out of it we see the great planes stretch out where the wild buffalos graze at the foot of the Himalaya’s. Fast forward 20 years and the courtyard has been cemented and the planes have been transformed into busy hubs of agriculture, production and transport. Progress.

It was probably both the falling in love with nature as well as the subsequent sense of loss that have shaped me and inspired what I do.

A downward spiral of erosion

It was in this same county that I first came face to face with poverty. The lack of land is one of the root causes of entrenched inequalities in the country. I say this as a member of the privileged land owning class. My father would have never been able to go to school, own his own house, go abroad to meet my mother if it hadn’t been for that fact. Land is traditionally distributed along cast lines. It means that if you are born into a poor class you will spend your life working at the mercy of the land owning class. Not owning land means you have no security, no collateral to buy a house, and no steady source of food or income. All of this is decided even before you are born. And if you are born a girl, this worsens your faith as you are considered a cost rather than a benefit.

How could a tree planting scheme change this?

Poverty and destruction are linked. Of the 1.3 billion people worldwide who live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day, forests directly contribute to 90 percent their livelihoods (World Bank). To survive, people clear the land for (temporary) subsistence agriculture, chopping down even protected forests to grow food for their families or for firewood. Though many of the poor recognize the destructive nature of their practices, there is not really a choice. They are trapped in a downward spiral. Or more specifically ‘a spiral of erosion,’ a term introduced by permaculture teacher Looby MacNamara.

Prime minister Imran Khan has promised to plant 10 billion trees across the country and restore more than a million hectares of forest. The tree planting scheme is aimed at hiring 85.000 unemployed people to work in tree nurseries and employ another 200,000 for the afforestation effort. The establishment of a National Park Service aims to create another 5,000 jobs. It sounds great but employment alone is not going to do it.

People are not born destructive. They are made destructive as a consequence of the system they are born into. So governments and international organizations have to dare to move beyond good intentions and be willing to change the very dynamics that cause poverty.

Turning a downward spiral into abundance

What fascinates me about spirals is both their destructive as well as their creative power. A hurricane and the petals of a rose share the same mathematical characteristics. To turn the spiral around is to harness it’s power for good.

Creating a spiral of abundance in a dire situation can be done by pinpointing the leverage point(s). In this case: land ownership. Give a poor woman or man the opportunity and education to create, and they will change the fate of many generations to come.

Indonesia is an example where civil society has been very active in securing land rights for peasant communities, with varying levels of success. Lessons can be drawn from their experience. Different forms of ownership, both private and communal, best serve different needs and there is always the risk of land accumulation in a country where there is a long history of inequality. So it speaks for itself that such a scheme will have to be well thought through and executed. However even if it is executed imperfectly, redistributing land to the poor will be a historic act in itself and one Imran Khan will be long remembered for.

An army of robots

But I am not naïve and neither is he. He knows there is still the other side of the poverty trap. The same people that shape the politics and administration of the country are dependent on the sweat of the poor. They are stakeholders in the spiral of erosion. So we must not only provide for the poor, but for the rich to, strange as it may sound. They need alternatives to the abundant amount of cheap labour and the subsequent race to the bottom. Release people from the dreadful and often hazardous circumstances of factories and bring in an army of robots. Mechanise the sugar and soap factories and clean up their waste. In the end everybody benefits because as the poor crawl out of their hopeless situation, a new class of empowered consumers and citizens is born.

Progress is unavoidable. The problem is really when it stops halfway.



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Zairah Khan

Zairah Khan

Regenerative Entrepreneur, Permaculture, BlueO2- Dreaming big from the ground upwards