With many countries under lockdown to avoid the spread of the virus, many workers have suddenly found themselves out of work and with no source of income. Pakistan, in lockdown since March 23, found a way to help them while helping the environment.
Unemployed day workers were given new jobs by the government as “jungle workers,” planting billions of trees across the country to deal with the climate threats already affecting Pakistan. It’s what’s called a green stimulus, helping people while coping with the effects of climate change.
“Due to coronavirus, all the cities have shut down and there is no work. Most of us daily wagers couldn’t earn a living,” Rahman, a resident of Rawalpindi district in Punjab province, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Now, thanks to the new program, he earns 500 rupees ($3) a day planting trees.
The government’s plan was introduced by Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2018 and will last five years, hoping to counter rising temperatures, flooding, droughts, and other extreme weather conditions – now more frequent in Pakistan because of global warming.
The Global Climate Risk Index, issued by think-tank Germanwatch, ranked Pakistan fifth on a list of countries most affected by climate heating over the last 20 years — even though it contributes only a fraction of global greenhouse gases.
As the coronavirus pandemic struck Pakistan, the tree planting campaign was initially stopped as part of social distancing orders put in place to slow the spread of the virus. A recent assessment by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics found that, due to the lockdown, up to 19 million people could be laid off, almost 70% of them in the Punjab province.
But earlier this month, the prime minister granted an exemption to allow the forestry agency to restart the program and create more than 63,600 jobs. This means the tree initiative could provide a big help to many of those who are struggling economically. Abdul Muqeet Khan, chief conservator of forests for Rawalpindi district, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the planting project is in “full swing”. Much of the work is taking place on 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) of land near the capital Islamabad, he said, as well as on other tracts of state-owned forests around the country.
This year, the program is employing triple the number of workers it did in its first year, said Malik Amin Aslam, climate change adviser to the prime minister. Many of the new jobs are being created in rural areas, he said, with a focus on hiring women and unemployed daily workers.
According to Germanwatch, Pakistan reported more than 150 extreme weather events — from floods to heatwaves — between 1999 and 2018, with total losses of $3.8bn. Environmentalists have long pushed reforestation as a way to assess the issue, with forests helping to prevent flooding and providing cool spaces.