Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, center, is surrounded by aides as he addresses to his supporters near the parliament building in Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 27, 2014.
Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, center, is surrounded by aides as he addresses to his supporters near the parliament building in Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 27, 2014.

ISLAMABAD - A massive reforestation campaign is underway in Pakistan’s violent northwestern province, where authorities plan to plant one billion trees by end of 2018 to help restore deforested lands and provide thousands of jobs.
Dubbed as “Billion Tree Tsunami”, or BTT, officials hope to increase the forested area from 20 percent to 22 percent in a country with Asia’s highest rate of deforestation.  They also hope to improve the livelihoods of as many as 13 million people.  
The project in the northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is a major initiative of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by former cricket-star-turned politician, Imran Khan.  Faizul Bari, the project director, said the ambitious planting goal during the coming years is aimed at improving the environment and spurring the growth of small-scale “eco-preneurs.” 
“20,000 private nurseries will be established to procure 500 million seedlings and the youth will be encouraged to raise nurseries after proper training,” he said.
Although the project has been criticized for a slow start, the provincial government says it has planted 18 million trees this year and has 250 million seedlings ready to be planted.
The nearly $300 million (30 billion Pakistani rupees) plan is being funded through the provincial government budget, as well as profits from timber confiscated from illegal loggers in the country. 
Jobs are an important part of the program in impoverished KPK, home to 40 percent of Pakistan’s forests, because people cut down trees to sell the timber.
To protect the forests, authorities are hiring security guards and contracting through scores of private nurseries to build up an economy around the forest initiative.
The effort is also expected to boost water reserves in increasingly parched Pakistan, reduce soil erosion and flooding, and enhance agricultural production.

PTI Chief Khan tells VOA the project hopes to spur more investment by building businesses around protecting and sustainably growing the forests.
“But this is innovative in the way that first time ever local communities are involved.  We are asking them to make nurseries and then plant the trees, protect them, and then from the same communities we are getting guards to go and then protect those trees and protect the forests,” he said.
President Zinsheng Zhang of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) visited Pakistan for the BTT campaign launch.  The move entitled KPK as the only province or sub-national entity to be inducted in the so-called Bonn Challenge.
“This all very impressive, and very appropriate for the Bonn Challenge, which is about much more than simply planting trees.  Restoring degraded and deforested land is an issue of the most basic human rights – the right to food, shelter, clean water and sustainable livelihoods,” Zhand said, while praising Khan and his party for undertaking the campaign.
The Bonn Challenge, set up in 2011, calls for the restoration of 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands by 2020. More than 20 countries have so far responded to the challenge expressing an ambition to restore more than 60 million hectors by 2020 with more commitments expected.
Khan insists that transition to a green growth promises huge economic returns and is vital “from an environmental conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation viewpoint.”
But provincial officials admit the “highly influential” so-called timber mafia, assisted by corrupt forest officials, poses the real challenge to the effort.
Khan said he has personally flown over parts of areas home to scenic valleys and has observed that illegal cutting of trees has converted mountaintops into “graveyards of pine trees.
“The biggest challenge is the timber mafia. It is very strong. Politicians are involved in this, the bureaucrats are involved in this.  We think between three to four billion dollars worth of trees were cut illegally in the last 10 years.  The whole areas have been denuded of forests,” Khan said.
But he insisted that for the first time his party’s government has initiated action against those officials assisting the timber mafia. 
In the past six months, he added, authorities in KPK have dismissed a large number of officials, including the chief conservator of forest department, and put some in jail in a bid to dismantle the networks.
“Because unless we take action against them whatever we do, we might plant a billion trees in five years, the damage they are doing, at the rate they are doing it, I am afraid we will not be able to stop the destruction of our forests,” he said.