Fighting the desert's advance with farm trees in Pakistan

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 July 2011 09:59 GMT

Farmers in arid Pakistan are planting indigenous trees to improve incomes and beat back climate challenges, including desertification

KARACHI, Pakistan (AlertNet) – Every day, Jeeja Meghwar and her son spend up to 10 hours tending her three-acre farm in Nagarparker. They grow lemons, onions, tomatoes and chillies - crops that earn Meghwar enough to support herself and her two children.

But another key crop also lines the edges of her dry farmland: over 400 indigenous trees, planted as part of an agro-forestry campaign to beat back desertification in arid Tharparker district and improve lives and livelihoods.

Some 90 percent of Pakistan's land has been classified as arid or semi-arid, according to Tanveer Arif, head of Pakistan’s Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE). Unsustainable land management practices are only making things worse.

“Approximately one-fourth of the country’s population is poor and directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods - whether agriculture, hunting, forestry or fisheries," Arif said. “But limited knowledge about the consequences of desertification and extremely inadequate institutional capacity to combat it have exacerbated the problem."

 The result? Decreased soil fertility, deforestation, and a loss of crop productivity and biodiversity.

Now, however, as part of an agro-forestry effort backed by Pakistan’s ministry of environment, the U.N. Development Programme, the Global Environmental Facility and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature-Pakistan, 600 poor families are getting land and assistance, in exchange for planting indigenous trees.

Meghwar, a widow whose family had struggled since her husband’s death six years ago, received her land, free seeds and fertilizer in February and agreed to plant trees as a windbreak and to reduce soil erosion and keep moisture in the ground.

Some of the trees – such as the lemons – also will provide her with a source of income.

The 60-year-old says life is now very different than during the bleak years after her husband, a tenant farmer for a landlord in Nagarparker, died six years ago.

"My husband was the family's only breadwinner," she says. "With his untimely death, our economic condition started worsening. My children and I were so poor, we suffered from hunger and acute malnutrition."

The project, called Sustainable Land Management to Combat Desertification in Pakistan, aims to fight land degradation, desertification and the effects of drought in Pakistan, and to protect and restore degraded ecosystems and the services they provide.

The project, which aims to reach 800 families, is just one of several initiatives in Tharparkar district , 490 km (300 miles) northeast of Karachi, that encourage local communities to take up agro-forestry in the hopes of beating back the expanding desert.

Spread over more than 22,000 sq km (13,670 sq mi), Tharparkar district is home to 1.5 million people whose livelihoods rely on grazing animals and subsistence agriculture - all of which is at the mercy of Pakistan's erratic monsoonal rains.

TECHNOLOGY AND TREES

 The solution to making life easier, experts say, lies in efforts to improve ecosystem resilience by better managing natural resources such as trees and water, and promoting the use of alternative and renewable energy.

“Encouraging pastoral communities to do things such as use new techniques to conserve underground water, manage their livestock more efficiently and protect local biodiversity can all go a long way to addressing the problems of desertification and sustainable land management,” says Kella Lekhraj, the Sindh province coordinator for the sustainable land management project.

That same philosophy drives another SCOPE-led agro-forestry and sustainable grazing project in Tharparker backed by Drynet , Catholic Relief Services and the World Food Programme. The project, started in 2003, has led to the establishment of about 35 small demonstration agro-pastoral farms.

They combine food crops, agro-forestry and managed grazing, and double as demonstration plots that farmers from other parts of the country can visit to learn techniques for combating desertification.

Tharparker residents say the programs are making a difference.

Noor Mohammad Hingorjo, 46, a livestock farmer in Tharparkar's Mehari village, said he was once deeply worried about fast-vanishing water and grazing in the area.

But he now looks after 3,300 indigenous trees, grown from 740 seedlings SCOPE gave him to plant on his land three years ago. The trees help check the spread of the desert by stablising the sand dunes in and around his land, and providing food for his animals.

"My livestock now have a continuous supply of fodder, and have grown healthy and multiplied," he said.

The project, “has saved me and my family from slipping into a trap of hunger and poverty."

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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