KHAIRPUR MIR’S, Pakistan (AlertNet) - Abdul Qadir Shah, a cotton farmer in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, has been able to spring back from the destructive floods of the past two years thanks to his decision to plant mango, date and neem trees on his 14-acre plot.
When floodwaters hit Khairpur Mir’s district, some 400 miles (644 km) northeast of Karachi, in 2010 and then again in 2011, Qadir Shah suffered financial losses of 4 million rupees ($44,000) as his cotton crop was ruined.
“But income from mango and date palm trees, which I had planted some four years earlier in my cotton field and on the edges of nearby irrigation waterways, provided enough money to let me repair damaged water channels, buy cotton seed, farm tools and pesticides, and other inputs for cultivating my farmland again this year,” he explained.
“Without these trees, I would not have been able to recover from the hefty financial losses and grow cotton again on my farm so soon.”
Following the devastating floods, Qadir Shah realised that cultivating trees alongside crops can be of great help when natural disasters wipe out harvests. Now he is spreading the word.
“I have persuaded other farmers, who have been unable as yet to emerge from the economic damages from the ravaging floods, to plant trees beside their crops to survive losses from crop failures in the future,” he told AlertNet, pointing to new seven-month-old trees now growing on agricultural land in the area.
As well as providing crucial income, Qadir Shah’s 90 mango trees, 20 date palms and 25 neem trees – whose oil is used in health products - have curbed soil erosion, reduced water evaporation and strengthened the unlined channels that supply irrigation water to his fields from the Khairpur West canal, which is fed by the Sukkur Barrage.
Forest, agriculture and environment experts say agroforestry - a farming method that integrates tree and crop cultivation - could benefit Pakistan in many ways.
“It can invigorate Pakistan’s ailing forest sector, help cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change impacts, diversify farmers’ income, reduce poverty in rural areas, and increase the fertility of farmland from bird droppings and dung from the livestock that sits under the shade of the trees,” said Pervaiz Amir, a noted environmentalist and member of the prime minister’s task force on climate change.
Pakistan’s forest cover is threatened by expanding urbanisation, a rise in housing construction, unchecked conversion of forestland for other uses, deepening poverty and a greedy timber mafia, experts say.
The country’s forest area is around 1.687 million hectares, or 2 percent of its land mass, according to the State of the World’s Forest 2011 report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Government officials, however, insist current forest cover is higher, at around 4.5 percent of the total land area.
The FAO report says that some 43,000 hectares of Pakistan’s forest were cleared every year between 1990 and 2010. And between 2000 and 2010, forest cover shrank at an annual rate of 2.2 percent, it notes.
If deforestation continues unchecked, Pakistan is likely to lose most of its forest within 35 to 40 years, Lubna Hasan, a research economist at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, warned in a 2008 paper.
But rising demand for staple food grains from a rapidly growing population makes it difficult to spare land to be converted back into forest, or even protect some existing forest.
The Pakistani government has set a target of increasing forest cover to six percent by 2015. But experts say ongoing deforestation will make it hard to attain this ambitious goal.
“Shrinking land resources are the key challenge to achieving such forest growth targets at a time when existing forests are being converted into croplands and human settlements to meet the rising food and housing needs of a galloping population,” said Syed Saeed Badshah Bukhari, secretary of the environment department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and former director-general of the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar.
“Agroforestry provides a workable remedy to this problem,” he added.
Syed Muhammad Akmal Rahim, an agroforestry researcher and divisional forest officer at the Punjab forest department in Lahore, agrees that growing trees alongside crops is a viable solution, although not all land is suitable for agroforestry, he cautioned.
For now, the method is being practiced in a few areas of Punjab province, as well as in Sindh, but has yet to be widely adopted.
CURBING FARM EMISSIONS
Besides protecting farm incomes, agroforestry also can also help tackle climate change. Trees absorb and store carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from farmland where they are planted.
Agriculture accounts for around 35 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. But improved farming practices can make a significant contribution - at a relatively low cost - to limiting emissions and storing more carbon in the soil, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Curbing deforestation, ensuring sustainable forest management and adopting agroforestry practices have good potential to capture considerable amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases and, at the same time, help cut poverty,” said Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, Asia director for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and head of LEAD Pakistan, an organisation that works on the environment and sustainable development.
Agroforestry is a particularly effective way of maintaining soil health through nitrogen fixation – which creates more fertile soil to grow other crops - as well as providing valuable fodder, fruit, timber, fuel, medicines and resins.
“This can help improve nutrition in cultivators’ households through higher incomes and more diverse diets,” Tauqeer Sheikh said.
Nonetheless, Shahzad Jehangir, deputy inspector general for forests at Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change, cautioned that resolving the problems afflicting the country’s forest sector will be difficult until forest departments in all provinces are given enough financial resources, equipped with up-to-date research facilities and trained in technical and scientific know-how.
He said he also doubts whether farmers will show much enthusiasm for agroforestry unless they are tempted with economic incentives, and persuaded of the financial benefits of planting trees.
“For instance, if farmers are offered $20 per tonne of carbon stored in their trees, they will be much more interested in growing them on their croplands,” Jehangir said.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.