Pakistan is planting numerous mangrove forests, but why are some people upset?

Wildlife ranger Mohammad Jamali navigates a boat through the mangrove forests of the Indus River delta, the endpoint of a winding waterway that begins thousands of miles upstream in the Himalayas. Birds flutter about, and insects dart around the roots of mangrove trees that protrude like fingers from the mud. Despite appearances, this part of the forest is only 5 years old.

"We planted this," says 28-year-old Jamali. "We" refers to rangers from the wildlife department of the government of the southern Pakistani province of Sindh and local residents from nearby fishing communities.

This forest in southern Pakistan is part of one of the world's largest mangrove restoration projects, covering a vast portion of the expansive delta, nearly the size of Rhode Island. These trees, situated between the sea and land, act as powerhouses, absorbing carbon dioxide that dangerously warms the planet.

"They do a lot of work per hectare," says coastal ecology expert Catherine Lovelock. Mangrove trees capture or bind carbon dioxide "through the roots and into the soil, as well as above ground," she says.

It is expected that this mangrove restoration effort in the Indus delta alone will absorb around 142 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next sixty years. This initiative serves as a test case for restoration, and planting mangrove forests on such a scale can help combat global warming.

Speaking of the gusty wind, Jamali, the wildlife ranger, says that forest restoration began here two decades ago after a cyclone claimed dozens of lives. This area suffered significantly because mangrove forests that once bordered the region had died out over decades as successive Pakistani governments built upstream dams, depriving the delta of fresh water. Mangrove thickets served as a buffer between the sea and local communities, mitigating the impact of storm surges during cyclones and strong storms.

According to environmental activist Afia Salam, former Sindh province ranger Tahir Qureshi pioneered the planting of mangrove species that require less fresh water because the Indus delta now receives so little.

Qureshi passed away in 2020 after a lifetime of advocating for mangrove forests on behalf of impoverished fishing communities that rely on them to attract aquatic life. Salam recalls that fishermen called him "baba" or "father" because "they respected what he did," she says, "how he benefited society."

For decades, Qureshi led the afforestation of about 30,000 hectares of mangrove forests. However, reforestation efforts received an additional boost after the Pakistani company Delta Blue Carbon, in partnership with the provincial government, restored over a hundred thousand hectares of degraded forests and planted an area more than twice that size with new mangrove thickets.

Creating a mangrove forest, sapling by sapling. Jamali, the wildlife ranger, jumps out of the boat to show how they are expanding the mangrove forests. From a mangrove tree, he plucks something resembling a spear. Essentially, it's a shoot, a seedling that has already sprouted, falling from the parent tree and settling in the muddy, damp soil below.

Workers collect shoots and cultivate them in nurseries on the outskirts of the forest. When they become sturdy enough, workers plant them elsewhere. Such large-scale reforestation takes years, and at the moment, it has cost millions, much more than the provincial government was willing or able to spend on its own.

Delta Blue Carbon primarily financed these efforts, spending years preparing for this project, reaching agreements with local communities and the government. The company took on this project to sell carbon removal services from mangrove thickets as credits to companies polluting the environment.

Delta Blue Carbon representatives declined to respond to a detailed list of questions.

The principle of carbon credits is that if a company emits a ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide, it can pay another company to undertake an activity that absorbs a ton of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide can be absorbed and stored in various ways, including by planting forests, restoring wetlands, and, in this part of Pakistan, planting mangrove thickets.

Delta Blue's carbon credit program is based on planting mangrove thickets that absorb and store carbon dioxide, and then selling credits for this activity. This is big business in a world where companies are trying to show that they are offsetting carbon dioxide emissions, also known as becoming "carbon-neutral."

But is this "carbon colonialism"? In Pakistan, according to some ecologists, this extensive reforestation project would not have materialized without carbon credits. They argue that the government was interested in supporting it. Instead of searching for a budget for this, the government receives income from the sale of carbon credits.