Aurora Magazine

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Published in Nov-Dec 2018

Let a thousand trees bloom

Updated Jan 10, 2019 12:13pm
Interview with Tofiq Pasha Mooraj, social and environmental activist.
Photo: Arif Mahmood
Photo: Arif Mahmood

Tofiq Pasha Mooraj, speaks to Aurora about trees, water and entrepreneurship.

AURORA: You have a wonderful farm here in Malir. Has this always been a way of life?
TOFIQ PASHA MOORAJ: It is a family farm; I was still at school when we came to live here. I guess for me, there was no decision to be made; I grew up here and grew into it. It was meant to be. Working with plants was a way of life.

A: Did you ever harbour any other ambitions about what you may want to do in life?
TPM: Way back in Grade 6, there was this idea of becoming an Air Force pilot. It lasted for just a few days; my father was a former Air Force person, so he may have encouraged this initially. But then it was taken for granted that this is what I would do.

A: Which was farming?
TPM: Horticulture; growing plants, flowers and fruit. I was in my early twenties when my father passed away, but as a family, we continued the life we were living. My father was an insurance surveyor. My brother and I ran the office and looked after the farm. My temperament was more suited to the horticultural aspect. We closed the office after 22 years and then I could concentrate on the growing side.

A: You were also a well-known TV personality?
TPM: That was when life completely changed and I became a public figure. With TV, I reached out to a large population and this created a lot of awareness about growing. Then I became involved in teaching about growing food as well as water conservation and management. The TV show had a massive impact. Baghbani was aired on Hum TV; initially, the idea was to do 13 episodes, but the popularity was such, we ended up doing 180 episodes. In 2008, I did Kitchen Garden for Masala TV. We did two seasons and a total of 180 episodes. I also did a show on Wicked called Go Camping With Pasha. I don’t know whether millions watched these programmes, but my gauge is how easily I am recognised. Stand me on any street in Pakistan and people will come up and shake my hand.

A: Are people today more engaged with environmental issues or is it lip service?
TPM: Generally, people are more aware; within our cities, the environment is reacting – even the common man feels there is something wrong. Certainly, within a certain segment of people, these issues are gaining momentum. Constantly, new groups are formed on Facebook about promoting an eco-friendly or a green Pakistan.


I am disappointed at times, especially when so-called enlightened people say stupid things. For example, we are in May and temperatures are touching 45 degrees Celsius and then someone says we must go out and plant trees. Don’t they understand that it is too hot? Wait for the planting season. Why plant a tree in such scorching temperatures and put that poor plant through that stress?


A: Do they practise it?
TPM: No. I recently gave a series of lectures at T2F called Maa Dharti. I talked about alternatives to polythene bags and how easily it can be done, and how, many years ago, everyone used a tokri for their bazaar shopping. I said why not buy a tokri so that next time you or your domestic buy something from the bazaar, the tokri is used to put stuff in. Everyone agreed. The following week, I asked how many had bought a tokri; no one had. So it is something that needs to be worked on. In my opinion, it is the State’s responsibility. At the end of the day, all the garbage lying on the street is costing the State. When the common man falls sick, he goes to a Government hospital and this costs the government. Loss of productivity may affect him and his household, but it also affects Pakistan’s growth. The State has many more resources than common citizens have access to. Two years ago, Karachi was full of garbage and a cleanup was ordered. Then it was reported that there was so much garbage that the Government did not have the capacity to lift it and more equipment and therefore, more money was needed. I thought why not use 10% of the extra money needed to run a media campaign, so that instead of having to deal with 12,000 tons of garbage, you only have to pick up 8,000 tons? The State can do that. There are also laws to deal with littering, so enforce those laws.

A: Do you really believe the State would do this in a consistent way?
TPM: The State is us, isn’t it? We have just stood back, not raised our voices and allowed others to take over our space.

A: Do you think the private sector has a role to play?
TPM: Education, security, health, food – the private sector has stepped in all those areas. However, very often, pollution is a question of design and material. The private sector is driven by profits and it needs to look at itself. Tetra packaging is detrimental to the environment; the material is recyclable, but the cost involved is so high it is not worthwhile doing it. Same for disposable coffee mugs; the material used is not biodegradable and look at the environmental impact of PET bottles. Glass was better, but then according to a recent survey, we are running out of sand; we have used up so much sand. We are not getting these resources from outer space. The only thing that comes from outer space is sunlight; the rest is what we have been given on this planet. The private sector has a role at different levels. We need to come up with solutions and offer them to the general public and help the government. Every single one of us has a role to play; we are all contributors to the problem.

A: Do you ever lose heart that this may be a losing battle?
TPM: I am disappointed at times, especially when so-called enlightened people say stupid things. For example, we are in May and temperatures are touching 45 degrees Celsius and then someone says we must go out and plant trees. Don’t they understand that it is too hot? Wait for the planting season. Why plant a tree in such scorching temperatures and put that poor plant through that stress?

A: What is your take on the conocarpus issue?
TPM: There is no bad tree. Every plant, every tree, every leaf has a purpose; they are tools and they need to be used in an appropriate manner. The conocarpus is not an urban tree; it has invasive roots, which damage sewerage and water lines. If you want to plant conocarpus, plant a forest in Mirpur Sakro district, which is severely waterlogged; the tree will absorb the water, dry out the ground and make it cultivatable. Why did nature restrict the eucalyptus to Australia? Because it has a purpose; goats, cows and buffaloes don’t eat the leaves. It is the koala bear that eats the eucalyptus leaves. There are times I lose hope when I see people with little knowledge trying to get into this; they create more of a negative impact than if they did nothing. On Facebook, there are videos about how you can cut a lemon and a pomegranate, join them together, put them in the ground and you will grow a plant that is half pineapple, half pomegranate and half lemon. There is a lot of misinformation around and people are misguided. So much is being done that is so wrong. The Defence Housing Authority (DHA) in Karachi started cutting down trees in Phase I and the residents rose up in arms. To pacify matters, DHA apologised and they held an event where they asked me to speak about the varieties of trees that should be planted in Karachi. In fact, the then Administrator of DHA gave an order that no tree would be planted in any phase of DHA unless approved by me. Two months later, he was transferred and that was the end of it.


Cities use about three percent of the fresh water available in Pakistan; 220 million people use three percent of the water in their homes and the rest goes on growing food. Okay, let’s say those figures are disputed. However, between commercial, industrial and residential, the use of water is not more than five to seven percent; 90% goes to agriculture. If the agricultural sector saved five percent of the water it uses, our cities will have no problem.


A: Which trees should be planted in Karachi?
TPM: Karachi was losing its diversity. The seeds of the conocarpus attract sparrows by the millions, but no other bird comes to it because it has nothing to feed the koel, the myna or the bulbul. It doesn’t have a flower to attract bees or butterflies. Karachi was losing its birds and its insects. Now hopefully, they are coming back, because we are planting gulmohars, amaltas, acacias, shatoots, badams and baer.

A: Who is planting these trees?
TPM: The people, and now slowly and steadily, the Clifton Cantonment Board and DHA have started as well because they have received a lot of flak. Planting trees has gained a lot of momentum in the last three years. When I give out a call, thousands of people turn up and I have to control the numbers, otherwise I will have more people than trees to plant.

A: Is this activity sustainable?
TPM: Some is and a lot of it is not. People are not informed about the correct varieties of trees to plant and where. Whether you can plant them on the road or on a divider; whether somebody will water them. Many groups have been conscientious enough to water them or ask shopkeepers or area residents to do it. We planted 100 gulmohars in downtown Lyari in the name of Abdul Sattar Edhi, with Sabrina Khatri and the DCTO School. We got the communities involved and each tree was adopted by a number of people; shopkeepers, students and their parents who promised to water them. All this needs the cooperation of the civic agencies. Please remember that if you plant a tree today, you want to see it live for 100 years, and if it is going to be cut down after 10 because it has become too big for that space, you are taking us back to zero.

A: Is arboriculture or horticulture taught at university level in Pakistan?
TPM: There is the Agriculture University of Tando Jam; there are also institutes in Balochistan and Punjab and two in KP, where they teach horticulture and forestry as a subject. Urban forestry and plantation is a subject that should be taught separately.

A: Are these universities up to standard?
TPM: As much as any of our other educational institutes are.

A: How huge an issue is water conservation?
TPM: Water conservation is critical. However, cities use about three percent of the fresh water available in Pakistan; 220 million people use three percent of the water in their homes and the rest goes on growing food. Okay, let’s say those figures are disputed. However, between commercial, industrial and residential, the use of water is not more than five to seven percent; 90% goes to agriculture. If the agricultural sector saved five percent of the water it uses, our cities will have no problem. The problem is that our irrigation practices are ancient. We are wasting water. We collect 10 million acre feet of water out of 150 million acre feet, which means we are wasting 140 million acre feet of water. We need to start doing something about this. Water is needed in our delta to keep it alive as much as the fields need it to grow crops. There is a large population of indigenous people who depend on that water. The delta is the breeding ground for our fish; once they hatch, they seek refuge in the mangroves until they are large enough to survive. Without mangroves or the delta there will be no fish. We can save 20 to 30% of the water that goes to agriculture; actually, we can save 50 to 70% of that water and still grow the same amount of food.


For a country that is one of the largest producers of milk in the world, we don’t have a culture of cheese; neither is there a culture of pickling or preserving. You can pickle and preserve most fruit and vegetables and a lot of economic activity can be created this way. We need to get away from expecting the Government to create jobs. We have to create our jobs, or even better, start a business, be our boss and employ people.


A: How?
TPM: By changing our agricultural practices. We cannot live as we did in the days of Mohenjo-daro or Harappa. Compare the bullock carts in Sindh or Punjab with the ones used in the days of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa – nothing has changed except for the little rubber strip that goes over the wooden wheel; this is the only change in 7,000 years! We need to modernise our agriculture. Our crop yield per unit of water is way below what the rest of the world is producing.

A: Added to which, the majority of our staple crops are water intensive; especially sugar cane. Can there be substitution?
TPM: Our consumption of sugar is very high and if we stopped growing sugar, prices would shoot up and we would have to import it. The solution is to grow an alternative high revenue crop that uses less water and which can be exported at a higher price than that at which we import our sugar and still have some money left.

A: What would be a high revenue crop?
TPM: Flowers, strawberries, asparagus, mushrooms. You export them and earn foreign exchange. In Northern Pakistan, after the 2005 earthquake, people had not only lost their homes, they lost their livestock and the seeds they used for growing corn and wheat. Seemi Kamal and I implemented a project in Rawlakot and I taught 100 women how to grow about 10 kinds of vegetables. It was a question of convincing them to grow vegetables rather than wheat and corn. They had their little patch outside, yet they bought their vegetables from the sabziwala. Everywhere in Pakistan, even in the smallest of villages in Punjab and Sindh, people buy their vegetables. How ridiculous is this? I told them that if they grew iceberg and broccoli for the Islamabad market, they would earn enough to buy as much wheat and corn as they needed and still have money left over.

A: Did they do it?
TPM: Quite a few did. But they need help. A lot of apricots and apples fall from the trees and are left to rot; why not make jam and sell it? A lot of NGOs did teach them how to make jam; what they did not teach them was how to market it. I have seen people start businesses just by walking into a shop with a product and asking them to stock it. Unfortunately, these mountain communities don’t know how to go about it. Again, the State can step in and teach them how. For a country that is one of the largest producers of milk in the world, we don’t have a culture of cheese; neither is there a culture of pickling or preserving. You can pickle and preserve most fruit and vegetables and a lot of economic activity can be created this way. We need to get away from expecting the Government to create jobs. We have to create our jobs, or even better, start a business, be our boss and employ people. Pakistan is full of entrepreneurs. The guy who goes from village to village collecting milk on a bike is an entrepreneur. One day, someone notices that a new factory has come up. The next day, he will set up a stall selling bananas, kinnows and tea and then suddenly a rickshawala will appear. They are all entrepreneurs! But they need help to take things to the next level and the State can do a lot in this.

Tofiq Pasha Mooraj was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: aurora@dawn.com