By Rina Saeed Khan
ISLAMABAD, Sept 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Pakistan's cricketing hero turned politician Imran Khan considers a run for prime minister, his party's record in his home province – especially the success of a widely touted reforestation initiative – is raising speculation that he might turn green advances into political advantage.
Pakistan is set to choose a new prime minister in elections due next year. Environmental issues remain far from the top of the list of concerns for most voters, despite worsening climate-related heat, drought, floods and other pressures.
But the record of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, in his home province of Khyber Pukhtunkwa, is gradually bringing him a bigger national political profile – and new possibilities.
After winning enough seats in 2013 to form a government in the province, in the country's north, Khan's party introduced a green growth initiative to tackle deforestation, build more small-scale hydroelectric projects and overhaul national parks.
It has promised a Billion Tree Tsunami of tree planting – and last month became the first government body in the world to meet its pledge under the Bonn Challenge of restoring more than 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of degraded forests.
The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world's deforested and degraded land by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.
"I have trekked all over Pakistan's mountainous north and it alarmed me to see all the cutting of forests," Khan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
By replanting forests, Khyber Pukhtunkwa province "has taken important steps to save future generations from the dangerous effects of environmental changes," he said.
The aim is to increase the area covered by forests in the province from 22 percent in 2013 to as much as 27 percent by 2018 through the Billion Tree Tsunami and the creation of new national parks in forested areas, he said. More than 40 percent of Pakistan's natural forests are found within the province.
In a speech in August, during Pakistan's Independence Day celebrations, Khan threw down a "green gauntlet" to other political parties, highlighting the challenge of climate change and the need to adapt to changing conditions.
Khan's party has announced that environmental conservation will be one of the four pillars of its electoral agenda, along with reducing poverty, the introduction of a merit-based system for governance, and more government accountability.
Political campaigning and rallies by all the major political parties have begun across the country in preparation for the elections, which are expected next June.
A share of political pundits predict that the recent Supreme Court dismissal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption allegations offers Khan his best opportunity yet to win national power.
"Imran Khan is certainly in the run for the prime minister's office," said Adil Najam, a climate change expert and dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.
"But in all fairness whether he gains it or not will have very little to do with the Billion Tree Tsunami. There is no evidence that planting trees can give a politician that type of electoral mileage," said Najam, who is also a popular blogger on Pakistan issues.
However, he added that the momentum and attention that the tree campaign has gained has raised awareness of green issues, at least among followers of Khan's party.
Malik Amin Aslam, chair of Khyber Pukhtunkwa province's green growth initiate and a key backer of the tree planting effort, agrees.
"There has been a political shift. Imran Khan is integrating environmental issues into the public narrative," he said in an interview.
In a move widely seen as a response to the green efforts in Khyber Pukhtunkwa, Pakistan's federal government has in turn started its own Green Pakistan programme.
It aims to strengthen institutions, train people and create policy reforms in the country's forestry and wildlife departments, with plans to plant 100 million trees, according to the former head of the programme, Syed Rizwan Mehboob.
Mehboob has criticised the Billion Tree Tsunami for including natural regrowth of trees in protected forests in its numbers, and says he believes the actual number of trees planted as part of the Billion Tree Tsunami is around 200 million.
But Aslam said the tsunami effort has met over 90 percent of its target of adding one billion trees through planting or natural regrowth, and has surpassed its initial target of boosting forested areas in the province by 2 percentage points.
The achievement has been recognised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and verified by WWF-International as an independent monitor.
Nature has "bounced back beyond expectations," he said, noting that "assisted natural generation" is globally accepted as one of the lowest-cost methods of forest and biodiversity restoration.
It has also brought over half a million new jobs to communities in the province, he said, including in tree nurseries and as forest guards established as part of the effort.
That, in particular, has changed peoples' attitudes toward green issues, he said – something he believes will translate into votes.
GREEN GETS VOTES?
But veteran journalist and television host Murtaza Solangi doubts that the Khyber Pukhtunkwa government's environmental achievements will automatically lead to gains at the polls for Khan's party next year.
"The level of green awareness in Pakistan, even in urban areas, is so low that it is minuscule. Even those who are aware of the impacts of climate change belong to a class that shies away from the electoral process," Solangi said in an interview.
"Environmental politics in Pakistan has a long way to go. For the average voter, social (services) delivery (and) familial or tribal loyalty is the driving force," he said.
Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and former lecturer at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said that voters appear most worried about corruption, energy shortages and infrastructure woes, and Pakistani politicians have not yet brought environmental issues into the political mainstream.
"The Billion Tree Tsunami is a remarkable initiative and everyone involved in it should be appreciated. But I've never seen a green initiative return a politician (with) a majority vote – yet," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Saeed Khan; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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