Pakistan’s untapped industry – The Express Tribune

It is believed that grafting wild olives can most likely enable generations to reap its dividends for centuries
Despite having the potential, resources, and capability to become self-sustainable in production of edible oil, Pakistan spends over $4 billion ever year to import this product.
With suitable climate, soil and air for plant that could produce different kinds of oil seeds like sunflower, olive and canola, the country’s production is less than 27 per cent due to decades of negligence. Mountainous areas as well as the plains in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Punjab provinces are good especially for olive plantation. However, decades of negligence by the government, as well as lack of expertise and facilities are stopping the industry from becoming sustainable.
There are an estimated 70 million wild olive trees in the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including its merged districts. People mostly cut them to feed their cattle and cook food. They are unaware of the tree’s economic potential and its importance for the environment. Deforestation is taking a toll on the ecosystem in the area, leading to land degradation, soil erosion, and ultimately, unemployment.
With the second highest rate of deforestation in Asia, according to the World Wildlife Fund, Pakistan is losing its ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Incessant large-scale deforestation is causing prolong droughts, rising heatwaves, erratic rain patterns and sudden flash floods. These devastating impacts are outpacing Pakistan’s efforts to deal with climate change.
Experts say protecting forests from deforestation requires people to save existing ecosystems and plant more, since this could help bolster the livelihoods of communities where they grow. Grafting millions of wild olive trees, which entails joining the upper part of plants so they grow together, is an agricultural technique that requires little effort but could produce major dividends.
Pakistan deforestation
Pakistan is fast losing its forests cover. In 2010, it had 648kha of tree cover, extending over 0.74% of its land area. It lost 63.2ha of tree cover, equivalent to 23.5kt of CO2 emissions in 2021, according to a Global Watch report. Forests fires have reduced KP’s green cover further. According to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Forest Department, 14,300 acres of forests were burnt from recent fires in the province.
To offset this destruction, experts urge people in Pakistan to consider grafting to generate money from these trees. “This will not only save our forests from being cut down, but provide a sustainable food chain, create jobs for hundreds of thousands of people and reduce dependence on oil imports,” said Dr Abdur Rahman, Project Director at the Agriculture Research Center, Tarnab Peshawar.
The research center estimates that there are over 50 million wild olive trees in Malakand division alone, which if grafted, could help Pakistan generate millions of dollars. Pakistan ranks among the top five edible oil importing countries, despite having the potential to produce its own product. According to the Bank of Pakistan’s data, Pakistan spent $4 billion during the 2021 importing edible oil. Pakistan imports 75 percent of its edible oil to meet the country’s demand, of which 94 percent is palm oil, most of it coming from Malaysia.
Pakistan also imports 2.2 million tons of oil seeds every year. Rahman said edible oil seed production is disappointingly low. “Our oil seed production is less than 27 percent.” Pakistan imports canola, sunflower, soybean and olive oil. Canola oil is imported from Canada and Australia, sunflower oil from Ukraine and Russia, and soybean oil from the United States and Argentina.
The government launched a ‘Green Revolution’ in 1960s to increase grain production to meet food demands of the growing population and make the country self-sufficient. It introduced modern techniques, seeds, fertilisers and seeds. As a result, the country’s wheat production increased by 25 percent between 1961-69. To promote olive cultivation on a commercial scale, the government set olive farms in Shinkairi, Abbottabad, Mansehra and Malakand division.
Currently, the Federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments are focusing on the promotion of cultivation of olive plants at the commercial scale. The federal government has distributed over 70,000 olive plants among farmers. However, lack of facilities, poverty and urbanization and lack of awareness regarding the importance of forests is making it hard for these programs to take off.
Hurdles for farmers
“People chop and use wild olive as fodder for animals and fuelwood at homes because this is the only option they have,” said Engr Fida, a resident of Maidan area in the Dir Lower district. He said people have no option but to cut them — they can’t afford the costly cylinder to refill fuel every few days. Without these crops he said they also can’t arrange fodder for their cattle, which is a lifeline for many.
According to World Wildlife Fund, Pakistan has 4.54 million hectares of land with forest cover, which is well below the recommended threshold of 25 percent. Pakistan loses 0.2 to 0.5 percent of its forests every year, which it is losing sources to store greenhouse gases from the environment. In a report by Justice Jawad Hasan of the Lahore High Court, citing the National Environmental Information System, found that forest cover had reduced from 3.59 million hectares to 3.32 million hectares.
The massive deforestation due to highest rate of deforestation, unplanned urban sprawl, lack of facilities and negligence on part of policy makers has rendered Pakistan vulnerable to climate change.
The German Watch has ranked Pakistan among top ten countries globally most affected by climate change in last 20 years. In its report 2020 report, Climate Risk Index, found that Pakistan has suffered massive economic losses and witnessed extreme weather, floods, droughts and heatwaves since 1999.
An assessment from the Asian Development Bank found the socio-economic costs of environmental degradation is $7 to $14 billion per year. Keeping in view the worsening climate, rising levels of greenhouse gases, droughts, heatwaves and sudden rains inflicting unprecedented damage to infrastructure, experts call for adopting environment-friendly steps and strategies.
“We should save our forests from deforestation [and] plant trees with highest carbon sequestration control warming,” said Professor Dr Hizbullah Khan from the Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Peshawar. He lamented that government and residents are resorting to planting non-native trees in an attempt to recover the greenery that has been lost. These strategies are doing more harm to the environment then what the government had expected.
Dr Haroon Khan, head of the Climate Change Cell, at Agriculture University Peshawar, said people were planting Eucalyptus trees, which are not only lowering groundwater levels but rendering the mountains dry. “This is a non-native tree that is taking a toll on local flora and fauna. It doesn’t allow other plants to grow due to which native trees that were panacea to deteriorating environmental have almost lost,” he said.
Industry potential
Wild olives are found in Swat, Dir Upper, Dir Lower, Shangla, Bajauar, North and South Waziristan, Kurram, Abbottabad, Mansehra and parts of Chitral. “It has great potential, that not only rid the province of unemployment but provide quality olive oil at cheap rate apart from reducing import bill,” said Israr Khan, a resident of Talash area of Dir Lower district. Khan has learned grafting techniques under a programme financed by the Pakistan Oil Seed Development Board and has grafted over 0.4 million wild olives so far in his hometown.
Aware of the opportunities the olive industry can offer, he said broken dry wood can be used for small industry like toymaking and can generate millions. He said he is aware of the challenges grafting entail; it takes three to four years for an olive plant to start giving fruits and most farmers are poor who cannot wait so long. However, if this industry can save over four billion dollars annually in imports, spending a few billion rupees to provide facilities and assistance to protect wild olive forests by grafting would be worth it for Pakistan, he said.
Khan is optimistic about the growth and transformation of the sector. He believes it has the potential to provide jobs to thousands of poverty-stricken farmers if they can set up olive nurseries and learn to graft. In the meantime, processing and packing plants can be set up. The government is already targeting culturable waste lands, said Rahman, and so far they have planted quality olive seeds on 11,000 hectares of land. The target for the project is 1.2 million trees and the government has identified 10.17 million hectares of waste land to use for cultivation.
“We do not encourage planting olive on fertile land and in areas where water in is abundance,” Rahman said. Land that is marginal and unable to grow wheat is preferred for olive plantation. “As many as 134 trees are planted on one acre of land that give around two tons of seeds from which 200 to 300 litres of high-quality oil can be extracted.”
The federal government has also installed a processing plant at different parts of KP to facilitate farmers at the center in Peshawar. Plants are also being set up privately in Malakand division. Plants are being imported from Italy and Spain which also providing technical assistance to promote plantation and grafting of olives.
“Olive trees requires less water, care and with highest carbon sequestration ratio,” said Said Ahmad, Chief Planning Officer, Agricultural Department. Keeping in view potential of the country, the International Olive Council has recently granted full membership to Pakistan. If these 70 million wild olives are grafted, the whole nation will harvest its dividends for centuries.
Fawad Ali is a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.


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