HARIPUR, Pakistan — When Mohammed Riasat, a government forest service officer, peers up at the majestic ridges around him, he sees small miracles others might miss: a few dozen pine seedlings that have sprouted in rocky, near-vertical cliffs or a grove of healthy young eucalyptus trees, planted on a patch of terrain that had been eroding after years of illegal use.

“When I see a grown tree cut down, I feel like a close relative has died,” said Riasat, who has spent three decades working with limited funds and staff to protect Pakistan’s beleaguered forests here in the verdant hills of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. “When I see a new one appear, I feel attached to it.”

Two years ago, that struggling effort got a huge boost. Imran Khan, then a politician whose party governed the province, launched a program dubbed the “Billion Tree Tsunami.” Eventually, hundreds of thousands of trees were planted across the region, timber smuggling was virtually wiped out, and a cottage industry of backyard nurseries flourished.

Today, Khan is Pakistan’s prime minister, and his new government is aiming to replicate that success nationwide, this time with a “10 Billion Tree Tsunami.” Officials said they hope the initiative, launched last month, will foster environmental awareness in their impoverished, drought-plagued country, where both greed and necessity have left forests stripped; they now cover only 2 percent of all land, according to the World Bank. 

The plan is one of dozens that Khan has proposed in his wide-ranging agenda to fashion a “new” Pakistan. Some have met with skepticism, such as persuading wealthy overseas Pakistanis to finance the construction of dams and vowing to end entrenched official corruption.

But the idea of a green awakening seems to be taking root. The new program is expected to make enemies, especially powerful individuals and groups that have appropriated large tracts of government land for years. But the concept appeals to a new generation of better-educated Pakistanis, and it has sparked excitement on social media.

Pakistan’s new government has launched a “10 Billion Tree Tsunami” in hopes of reversing decades of deforestation. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)
Pakistan’s new government has launched a “10 Billion Tree Tsunami” in hopes of reversing decades of deforestation. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

“This is one of the rare things in our society that is not divisive,” said Malik Amin Aslam, the new federal minister for climate change, who headed the original campaign in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. On Sept. 2, when the government held 200 launch ceremonies across the country, enthusiastic citizens helped plant 2.5 million saplings in one day.

But experts said Pakistan will need more than a trillion new pines, cedars and eucalyptus trees to reverse decades of deforestation. It is even harder, they noted, to protect public forests from human predation, which is often hidden from view and hazardous to combat. Culprits include timber rustlers, villagers who let cattle forage freely and developers who raze acres of forested land. 

During the pilot project in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, officials hired local residents as forest guards, but 10 of them were killed trying to stop encroachers. And when an observant citizen repeatedly reported illegal logging in an obscure area of the province, local officials did nothing. Finally, provincial leaders fired every employee of the forest service administration.

“It was a signal of zero tolerance, and it sent shock waves across the government,” Aslam said.