Environment Stories from Pakistan

When Love for a Greener Planet Transcends Borders

By Shreya Pareek and Syed Sibte Hassan

When Shahzad Qureshi from Pakistan saw a TED Talk about creating forests by India based Shubhendu Sharma, he immediately sent him a message. They instantly clicked and soon both of them created a forest in the heart of Karachi. This was the beginning of a deep friendship and common working towards a goal of making a greener planet. Together, they have planted native forests in multiple countries and have organised forest-making workshops. This is their story of friendship and how two people from the conflicting borders came together for a bigger purpose.

A decade ago, Shahzad Qureshi, an entrepreneur from Karachi, Pakistan came across a TED talk titled “How to create a forest in your backyard?”. The talk was by Shubhendu Sharma from India who has been planting native forests across the globe. Qureshi was so fascinated by the idea that he spent next few months reading more about it. During the same time Karachi was undergoing a deadly heat wave taking several thousand lives.

Qureshi decided to get in touch with Sharma from Uttarakhand. He sent Sharma a message, asking him for his help in creating these forests in Pakistan. Sharma runs a company called Afforestt in India that specialises in creating native, natural forests in small spaces.

One video call was enough to make Qureshi and Sharma come together for a common goal of making the planet more green. Qureshi acquired a land and started the visa process for Sharma. 

“When Sharma explained about the technicalities of creating these forests, I immediately knew that we had to bring him here to Pakistan. Annually million of trees were planted in Karachi, but majority of these trees died. Which meant there was some problem with the the way we were planting them,” said Qureshi.

After a long visa process Sharma landed in Karachi on November 10, 2015 and that marked the beginning of a long ongoing friendship and partnership of planting forests across the globe. 

I stayed at Shahzad’s house and got along with his father really well. His father was from Agra, India and my father had also spent some time in that city. We talked a lot about both countries and how similar things are,” Sharma said.

Sharma introduced Qureshi to Miywawaki method of plantation, which focuses on creating small patches of forests in urban spaces. The method helps them create self sustaining lush green forests in the heart of the city within two years.

The unique method

Sharma learned creating forests from a Japanese scientist Akira Miyawaki in 2009. The method works on the concept of bringing back the potential natural vegetation of any specific region by planting only native trees in a way that they support each other to grow faster.

The method has several steps starting from soil survey, finding the lost native vegetation, and providing the missing nutrients to the soil.

“We try to find out the native vegetation that would have existed in any geography before the human intervention. We do so by visiting the nearby natural forests of that area and reading old literature,” Sharma mentioned.

Once the plant species are identified, they are planted in a close proximity. About 50 to 100 varieties of native species are planted at a density of 3-5/sq meter starts. Once these plants grow up, they form layers in four categories; main tree species, sub-species, shrubs, and ground-covering herbs. 

After plantation, the site is monitored, watered, and weeded for two years. This gives an initial boost to the forest to support itself. After that, the forest becomes self-sustaining, and does not require any interference. “Once the forest becomes self sustaining, no management is the best management,” said Sharma.

The method, which originated in Japan, was modified by Sharma as per Indian geography and later for other countries as well. “After learning from Dr. Miyawaki and reading his literature, I wrote it as a standard operating procedure, so it could be replicated,” Sharma mentioned. 

Coming together for a common cause

Since the method was proven to be successful in India, Qureshi was confident that it will work in Pakistan as well since both the countries have similar geography.

“I really love to see Indian urban forest projects in their country and the solutions they are providing, so we can copy paste these in Pakistan as we both have same regions and areas,” Qureshi said.

The duo then travelled to different locations in Pakistan, looking for the material to plant their very first forest in Karachi. In 10 days, the first forest in Pakistan was ready. The first forest was planted in the 500 square meters of space in a public park.

“The idea behind creating a forest in the park was to gather people’s attention. We collected the funds from public, initially they didn’t understand the logic but eventually they understood what we planned to achieve,” Qureshi said.

We did not know if I will be able to get a visa next time so we made the forest in a hurry. We also made a few mistakes, due to which the forest did not grow. I had to come back to India. We kept coordinating over the phone and video calls to track the progress of the forest. We implemented some changes and finally, the forest started showing some life after one year,” recalls Sharma.

Pictures of bio diversity from one of the forests created by Sharma.

Qureshi decided to then take this initiative further and decided to cover the entire public park with native trees. It took Qureshi over five years to finish the designing and plantation in that park. Qureshi claims that it is now a 100 percent self sustaining park with around 40 thousand trees in it. The park also has a vegetables patch, sitting spaces, and interesting corners.

After this first successful attempt, Sharma visited Pakistan five more times to help Qureshi create forests there. Visa was still a major issue for both of them to regularly work together. Hence, they started looking for opportunities in other places. 

Both of them also visited many countries to create these forests. Together, they attended the climate change conference in New York in 2023. They also organised workshops to train other people in this methodology. 

After seeing this success, they created more forests in Lahore, Iran, and Nicaragua together. Their friendship grew organically and Qureshi opened a partner company, Urban Forest in Pakistan to create more forests independently.

They launched a successful Kickstarter campaign where the duo raised around 30,000 USD to create high quality video tutorials on how to make a forest in multiple languages. Video tutorials in Hindi, English, and Punjabi have been released. They are now working on creating these videos in Spanish.

Love transcends borders

As they continued their work, their bond grew stronger. Gradually, they shared common interests, conversations, jokes and much more.

Every time the duo would meet, they would bring souvenirs for each other. Sharma would actively look for tag Made in Indiaon his gifts while Qureshi would bring gifts with a tag Made in Pakistan.

Qureshi recalls his first visit to India in 1997. As soon as I landed, I saw so many similarities. People, their language, their food, their dialect, their style, dressing and everything else was so similar. I didnt feel I was in a different country. It felt like home,” Qureshi said.

Qureshi wants to visit India again. This time to learn water management techniques from India. However, getting a visa still is a big challenge.

I think the government of both countries should start trusting their citizens. We wont become bad citizens by visiting each other,” Sharma said.

We think we will face a problem in visiting other countries if we have a Pakistani visa on our passport. Similarly, people there think that they might a face problem with their authorities if their passport has an Indian visa. We have to stop fearing so much,” said Sharma.

Qureshi thinks that people should actively start travelling cross-border. With more and more people showing interest in travelling, the things might get a little flexible.

If you are not able to visit physically then you can indulge in cross-border projects digitally. Some great things can happen with remote collaboration too,” Qureshi said.

This story is a result of collaboration between journalists from India and Pakistan as part of East West Centre’s Cross Border Journalism fellowship.

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