ISLAMABAD - Officials in Pakistan say a massive government-run reforestation campaign has grown 750 million trees across a northwestern province since 2015.
The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or KP, launched the four-year project with a goal of planting 1 billion trees by the end of 2018, hoping it would "turn the tide on land degradation and loss" in a formerly forested province in the Hindu Kush mountain range.
Officials and leaders of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party — which rules the province — gathered Thursday in the national capital of Islamabad to mark the progress in what is officially dubbed the "Billion Tree Tsunami," or BTT.
The party chief, Imran Khan, former cricket-star-turned politician, told the gathering the tree-planting initiative has provided employment to "500,000 people in remote mountainous regions where finding livelihood opportunities is extremely difficult."
Jobs are an important part of the program in impoverished KP, home to 40 percent of Pakistan's forests, because people cut down trees to sell the timber.
Khan said the project is vital "from an environmental conservation and climate-change mitigation and adaptation viewpoint."
Provincial officials say thousands of private nurseries have been created after proper training for procuring hundreds of millions of seedlings, while BTT has also helped improve livelihoods of people associated with scores of existing nurseries in KP.
The provincial government says it also employed people to protect the forests, which discourage the timber mafia.
The nearly $300-million plan is being funded through the provincial government budget, as well as profits from timber confiscated from illegal loggers in the country.
Experts associated with the tree-planting campaign say the drive also is expected to boost water reserves in increasingly parched Pakistan, reduce soil erosion and flooding, and enhance agricultural production.
It also will increase the forested area from 20 percent to 22 percent in a country with Asia's highest rate of deforestation.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the only province or sub-national entity to be inducted in the Bonn Challenge. Set up in 2011, the Bonn Challenge calls for the restoration of 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2020.
More than 20 countries so far have responded to the challenge, expressing an ambition to restore more than 60 million hectares by 2020, with more commitments expected.