Why are communities critical for voluntary carbon markets in Pakistan?

3 key lessons in building effective and long-term relations with communities for forest-based carbon offset projects.

Pakistan Environment Trust
7 min readApr 21, 2021

This article is part of a continuing series on PET’s carbon programme. Read our first article on the potential market for carbon offsets in Pakistan here.

“Our people have lived in these forests for hundreds of years — they remind us of our ancestors. Today we cut down these forests for our survival.”

This sentiment was shared among several communities across the Swat district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when PET’s Programme Director, Hasan Anwer, spoke with them during a series of field visits over the last six months. It offers a glimpse into why forest conservation is more difficult than it often sounds, not just in Swat but all over the world. In theory, avoiding cutting down trees should be a straightforward choice for everyone — healthy forests provide considerable value to community members. According to the FAO, around 80% of forest dwellers in Pakistan are reliant on forest products in one way or another. The forest ecosystems in Swat in particular provide tradable products for local communities in the form of honey, dried fruits, and medicinal herbs, as well as other sustainable development opportunities such as eco-tourism. In practice, however, protecting forest environments comes with several hurdles that need to be disentangled before an effective solution can be implemented.

Hasan, Programme Director at Pakistan Environment Trust, speaking with a community leader on one of his trips to Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Swat has seen one of the highest rates of population growth in the region — over the last 19 years, Swat saw an 84% increase in population compared to the average 59% growth in the overall division (Source: Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Concurrently, community members have become increasingly reliant on cutting down forests for their growing needs. One main use of forests results from limited access to reliable energy in rural and forested areas, which means communities rely on firewood as their only source of fuel. Despite efforts by the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to tackle the issue of deforestation and degradation (e.g., bans on commercial timber harvesting), illegal logging remains a persistent challenge — it is done covertly and typically relies upon unsustainable harvesting methods.

These conversations with local communities serve as a strong reminder of how closely intertwined community engagement is with forest conservation. As part of PET’s work to scale up Pakistan’s participation in the voluntary carbon market, our team spoke with Carbon Tanzania — a leading social enterprise that is undertaking pioneering forest conservation work in East Africa through voluntary carbon offsets. Jo Anderson, a Director at Carbon Tanzania, highlighted three important lessons for what it takes to work with local communities on preventing deforestation and forest degradation.

Build trust with communities through open communication

A problem that often arises in community-focused projects is unclear expectations, benefits, and trade-offs among all stakeholder groups. It is necessary to address this issue at the outset of the project — communities need to be informed early-on about their expected involvement and how conserving surrounding forest landscapes will bring them economic and social value throughout the full lifecycle of the project (which can be typically be 20–30 years).

For Carbon Tanzania, a model that has worked has been facilitating communication through trusted community champions. These champions are younger, educated members of the community that are selected to mediate between Carbon Tanzania and the communities — allowing clear communication between the parties by overcoming translation barriers, while removing some of the mistrust that comes with non-local project developers. Communities are able to understand and trust contract terms when communicated through the community champion, and it becomes clear to them that their forest conservation efforts would unlock corresponding revenue from carbon offsets that could go towards things like healthcare, school costs, and improving local infrastructure.

Empower communities as active partners, not passive beneficiaries

Jo spoke about the importance of building a strong sense of ownership and empowerment for local communities when delivering such projects. According to Carbon Tanzania’s experience, communities have to be co-invested in the success of the project — that can only come if communities are seen as contributors to the project and are encouraged to develop a genuine sense of ownership over the project activities and the resulting revenues.

Successful forestry projects around the world deploy a variety of methods to empower communities for forest conservation, some of which are being seen in Pakistan today. Non-profit organisations in Pakistan working closely with communities have seen that under the right conditions, communities are willing to engage in forest management because it enhances their understanding and control of their own resources, threats, and potential revenue sources (e.g., from the sale of non-timber forest products). Often, community-based organisations (CBOs) have been set up so that project developers do not have to rely on top-down measures to implement activities which otherwise have the risk of seeming foreign and prescriptive to communities. CBOs are non-profit organisations mobilised at the local level, led by community representatives working toward the purpose of improving development for their own regions. A study by the University of Peshawar demonstrated that CBOs in Swat played a positive role towards the socioeconomic development of the area — sampled communities in the district had developed education, health, trainings, and construction facilities as a result of being empowered.

Maintain an ongoing dialogue with communities over the project lifetime

Even though Carbon Tanzania has been operating for several years, building trust and cooperation with communities continues to be a recurring and evolving process. Jo recalled that 3 years into Carbon Tanzania’s flagship Yaeda Valley project, when communities had already recruited guards for conservation and had started to receive payments from carbon offsets, the chairman of one village rose to say in a meeting, “We understand that forests are important and that’s what the money is there for, but what we don’t understand is how you’re taking our carbon and selling it to customers in Europe.” For Jo, this question represented an important part of community engagement — it takes time and effort to build lasting trust with communities. Carbon Tanzania holds meetings at a regular cadence with communities even after several years into the project, to ensure they are still comfortable with the agreement.

Frequent meetings with communities are just one of the channels available to project proponents — community-based projects often have various mechanisms in place so that community stakeholders have anonymous and accessible channels to make their issues and concerns known at any point in time. Examples of effective channels in other successful projects have been telephone hotlines, community champions who live in the region, or a dedicated staff member employed specifically for addressing complaints — all of these available for the entirety of the project lifetime.

PET’s carbon programme

The three learnings above are not unique to Carbon Tanzania — the same principles are applied to successful community-based forestry projects around the world in countries like Indonesia and Peru. PET’s nature-based carbon offsetting projects are being developed with the same principles in mind, with community engagement as the core focus. These projects demonstrate the central premise that new opportunities can be created for local communities by assigning an economic value to their surrounding forest ecosystems and the carbon they sequester. If communities are empowered as project partners and revenue generated from carbon offsets is successfully re-invested back to local communities, there is a strong likelihood that Pakistan will be able to see a reversal in its deforestation and forest degradation the same way Tanzania is seeing.

For project developers, getting community engagement right is usually motivated by one crucial factor — successful community engagement means that a plethora of co-benefits are unlocked that are critical for the development of the project region. If done right, forest conservation projects will bring a lot of benefits to communities in Pakistan. As an example, 17,000 locals that are part of Carbon Tanzania’s project in the Ntakata Mountains utilise carbon revenue to enhance their livelihoods through the financing of health insurance services, school infrastructure, and improved farming practices. Similarly, below is a diagram that shows how an illustrative forest project can deliver against multiple SDGs while addressing drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. Incorporating the 3 principles above will mean that forest communities in Swat too will be able to deliver against SDG goals in a similar manner through the flow of carbon revenue from PET’s projects.

Figure 1: Contribution to SDG goals by an illustrative forest conservation project

Hasan and the rest of our team continue to visit local communities to help build relations and understand their developmental needs. Our upcoming priorities include conducting more focused community engagement sessions and surveys to quantify attitudes toward forest conservation and explore potential mechanisms for partnering with local communities. As PET works to scale Pakistan’s participation in the voluntary carbon market — which could deliver $200M in annual revenue for Pakistan — our focus on community engagement will only strengthen over time.

Note: All quotes and photos have been added with the permission of the respective parties.

Stay posted for our upcoming series of articles on the work the Pakistan Environment Trust (PET) is doing to build Pakistan’s first programme on voluntary carbon offsets.



Pakistan Environment Trust

Mobilising global capital and expertise towards tackling Pakistan’s toughest environmental challenges.