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Pakistan is planting lots of mangroves — but it's upsetting some environmentalists

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the largest mangrove forestation efforts in the world is in Pakistan. It takes place in the Indus River Delta, an area nearly the size of Rhode Island. Mangroves are a powerhouse of absorbing carbon dioxide, and this project is seen as a test case for how planting on a large scale could help curb global warming. The financing is controversial. NPR's Diaa Hadid takes us to the fishing village of Keti Bandar to find out why.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR RUNNING)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Ranger Mohammad Jamali boats us through mangrove forests of the Indus River Delta. Birds flutter about. Insects dart around mangrove roots that poke like fingers out of the mud. It looks ancient, but it's only five years old.

Has this all been replanted by you guys?

MOHAMMAD JAMALI: Yes. Yes.

HADID: Wow.

It's a day/night contrast to the parts that haven't been restored yet. They're dusty and dry. The Indus River Delta withered after Pakistan built dams upstream decades ago that cut off the water and silt that these wetlands, including mangroves, needed to survive.

JAMALI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Over gusty winds, Jamali says, reforestation began here two decades ago after a cyclone ripped up this area and killed dozens. It drove home how important the mangrove forests are as a buffer protecting coastal communities from the sea.

JAMALI: First natural defense line, the old mangroves there.

HADID: He says mangroves were the first natural defense line, and they were gone. A Pakistani environmentalist, Tahir Qureshi, who passed away three years ago, transplanted mangrove species that need less fresh water because this delta now has so little of it. That reforestation dramatically and rapidly expanded after 2015. It now covers an area of some 350,000 hectares. And now these mangroves are expected to absorb some 142 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next 60 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

HADID: Jamali jumps out of the boat to show me how they're expanding the forests. Workers snap off things that look like spears off the mangrove trees.

JAMALI: This is a propagule because it is a germinated.

HADID: Basically, it's a baby tree that drops off the mama tree. The workers harvest them and plant them elsewhere. That scale of reforestation takes years and costs millions. It's only happening because a company called Delta Blue Carbon put up the money and partnered with the government. They're doing this because mangroves can absorb 2 to 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide that a regular forest can. Dr. Catherine Lovelock is a leading expert on mangroves. She explains it this way.

CATHERINE LOVELOCK: They sequester carbon through their roots and into the soil, as well as above ground.

HADID: Sequestering carbon dioxide - like holding carbon.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

HADID: That tangle of mud and roots you see around mangrove forests is holding carbon dioxide. That means even though mangroves represent only a tiny proportion of the world's forests...

LOVELOCK: They do this very big job per hectare.

HADID: And Delta Blue Carbon is selling that carbon removal service as credits. Put simply, if you emit a ton of carbon dioxide, you can offset that by paying someone else to remove a ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for you. That's a carbon removal credit, or an offset. The company, Delta Blue Carbon, has sold two lots of credits so far, and the government says it's received $40 million - big money in a poor country.

RAFIUL HAQ: It is paying money by generating a revenue.

HADID: Consultant ecologist Rafiul Haq (ph) tells me the money is a powerful incentive for the government to protect and restore mangroves. Otherwise, they'd be under pressure to let developers in for shrimp farms or seaside homes. Haq says there's another benefit - auditors must evaluate the company's progress before they can sell more carbon credits.

HAQ: So this is a blessing for us. We have to present ourselves as the good boy.

HADID: The good boy - like, there can't be any fudging, like doing a shoddy job of the replanting. But this solution is controversial. The carbon credit industry has many critics...

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLEY LODGE SONG, "GO")

HADID: ...Like late-night show host John Oliver.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

JOHN OLIVER: Our main story tonight concerns Earth. It's basically the Oscar Isaac of planets, in that it seems to be getting alarmingly hotter every year.

HADID: Oliver cites reports that older projects exaggerated their claims to be absorbing carbon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

OLIVER: And when you buy an offset so you can pollute more, and that offset is [expletive], you're now actively making things worse.

HADID: Some scientists and environmentalists describe the carbon credit industry as a license to pollute. Even if the carbon credits are credible, they argue it takes pressure off industries to cut their own carbon pollution. But still, investors are excited in the potential that mangroves offer. A major group that registers these projects says there's now about a dozen similar projects in the pipeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR RUNNING)

HADID: Back in Keti Bandar, there's a fishing hut near the jetty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKING CRABS INTO BOXES)

HADID: There, Gul Zamir shakes freshly caught blue crabs into freezer boxes for market. He says crab, shrimp and fish have been returning in greater numbers as the mangroves have expanded.

GUL ZAMIR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, a few years ago, his family could only eat one meal a day. Now, it's three, and they're even eating meat. He pats his belly. That's where he measures the difference.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Keti Bandar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.