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Do communities have a voice in major ecological projects?

Friday 20 January, 2023

by Buntu Fanteso

Bunto Fanteso

The Ten Billion Trees Tsunami is a huge effort to create new forests across Pakistan to combat environmental damage and climate change. But do local people have a say in what is planted and where? And should they? asked Buntu Fanteso (South Africa-at-Large & Hertford 2021).

The government of Pakistan has set out an ambitious tree-planting initiative to plant 10 billion trees by 2023 – the 10 billion tree tsunami. Since its inception, the programme gained global traction and was mentioned at the COP 26 summit in Glasgow last year.

My research focused on this world-renowned tree-planting initiative from the perspective of local ecological knowledge; to what extent are paradigm shifts from colonial top-down to bottom-up forest management approaches translated from theory to practice in Pakistan?

Selecting tree species for ecological projects is a complex task that needs consideration of various aspects such as programme objectives, social preference and ecological requirements in decision-making. The effective engagement of various stakeholders is critical to the successful implementation of climate change initiatives such as the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami.

Local and forest communities' perspectives and knowledge must be recognised and incorporated into tree species and site selection in tree planting initiatives as one mechanism of effectively engaging local communities.

As a result, selecting tree species and seed sources for plantations necessitates the integration of several knowledge domains and methodologies, such as local ecological knowledge and scientific ecological knowledge which are both widely recognised by international agreements and declarations such as the Paris Agreement, Convention on Biological Diversity and UNESCO.

My study involved an ethnobotanical survey of tree species and their significance to local communities in Pakistan. I spent about a month interviewing local people and different stakeholders (NGOs, government and consultants) involved in the initiative, in different geographical sites in Pakistan. I looked at the perceptions of both local communities and stakeholders towards local ecological knowledge, and the extent to which local communities are involved in decision-making.

I arrived at Islamabad International Airport around 10 p.m. on May 29th. The next morning, we went to our incredible host institution's offices, WWF-Pakistan, to meet the phenomenal team that has been so helpful with arranging my fieldwork logistics while I finished my exams at Oxford. I was honoured to be introduced to officials from the Ministry of Climate Change (MCC), who provided a thorough background on the project and its goals.

We left Islamabad for Peshawar, and I had mixed emotions for two reasons. The journey was exciting because we met with Forest Departments and visited the Pakistan Forest Institute, and we had interesting discussions about the programme. However, the city had been hit by an earthquake the night before my arrival, and while the effects were minor, I wondered, "Could this tree-planting initiative be something people want to talk about after an earthquake?"

In August this year, floods in Pakistan left nearly a third of the country underwater, killed close to 1700 people and affected millions of homes. Such tree-planting initiatives are an urgent call for urgent climate action. On the other hand, my other reflection is on how climate action can exacerbate human rights violations.

During the interviews, some respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the project, citing issues such as non-payment of salaries and poor coordination and governance, particularly when it comes to involving all key stakeholders. While this was not the primary goal of this study, the success of tree-planting initiatives cannot be measured solely by the number of trees planted, but also by considering inclusive forest management approaches while avoiding violations of human rights.

The findings of the study revealed varying stakeholder perceptions of local ecological knowledge in Pakistan. While some perceived local ecological knowledge as an important means through which local communities could be effectively involved in the sustainability of the tree-planting initiatives, others see it as a threat and claim that it is not an effective forest management approach as it would increase access to the forest and ultimately lead to the destruction of the forest.

In addition, there was a strong disregard for local ecological knowledge, with a strong view among some that local people could lead the selection of inappropriate species due to lack of knowledge and that they would be solely driven by the socioeconomic value of the tree species with no regard for the ecological value. On the other hand, local communities perceived using local knowledge as an instrument to bring all the stakeholders together and plant tree species that address both socio-economic and environmental challenges in Pakistan.

Three ways in which local knowledge is excluded

To what extent is local ecological knowledge integrated into decision-making - the main aim of the research? The study revealed three fundamental factors that determine the participation of local communities in decision-making.

  • First, land ownership and access are used to exclude people from tree species selection. Those without land cannot make decisions about site selection and tree species selection, despite the fact that they are the majority of people who rely on the forest for a living in comparison to the elite landowners.
  • Second, the power imbalance of various actors determines who participates in decision-making and who does not, whose knowledge counts and whose knowledge is counted out.
  • Third, the legacy of colonial forest policies still exists and restricts access to the forest by perceiving local people as major threats to the forest. Based on my research and data, there is a strong need for fundamental institutional transformations at all scales when it comes to implementing climate change initiatives.

Challenges of fieldwork

Outside of my research in Pakistan, our host organisation went above and beyond to ensure that our experience went beyond working on the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami initiative, for which I am grateful to the conveners and the host institution. However, my research fieldwork in Pakistan was not without its challenges.

I had a really traumatic experience at the airport while flying in and out. I was confronted with discrimination and unfair treatment by the staff at Islamabad Airport. I was taken to multiple screening rooms, had my identity verified several times, and my clothes were unpacked from my luggage while everyone else who happened to be non-black got a free pass without any unfair treatment.

As researchers, we are frequently required to fill out research risk assessment forms in which we provide detailed information about how we intend to minimise any harm to our respondents. However, we are not adequately prepared to manage trauma and emotions in the field, and I believe it is time to start having conversations about dealing with discrimination and managing trauma in the field.

I would like to thank Sir Peter Elworthy donors for their financial support. Their generosity enabled me to travel from the UK to Pakistan and locally in Pakistan to collect as many respondents as possible and have contributed to the completion of my MSc. In the future, I intend to expand on my research and advocate for the inclusion of local communities in tree-planting initiatives.

Buntu Fanteso is studying for a DPhil in Biology at the Jackson Lab Aquatic Ecology  at the University of Oxford

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