The fertile alluvium deposited by the mighty Indus river and its tributaries in Pakistan have given the country’s demographic heartland of Punjab an agrarian edge. Yet, errant canal planning and over-pumping from tube-wells have degraded vast tracts of land. Salinity and water-logging afflicts around 6.3 million hectares of land and an additional 4,000 hectare of land gets affected every year (estimates from University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan, November 2011). Climate change and conflicts over hydroelectric impoundment infrastructure have also made the arable lands of the country further vulnerable to flooding, as we saw in the epic floods of 2010 when an estimated 20 million people were displaced.
Amidst all these challenges to the farming economy of the country, there are glimmers of hope that Pakistan’s elite are trying to reconnect with the land in sincere and innovative ways. During my last trip to Lahore – the capital of Punjab province and Pakistan’s second-largest city (after Karachi), I was heartened to see urbanites retreating to farms in the surrounding countryside. Previously such farms were merely ornamental playgrounds of wealthy families but now there is a growing interest in these ranks to reconnect with the earth for societal good.
Zacky Farms, just outside Lahore, is the brainchild of Zafar Khan, a Caltech-educated software engineer who runs one of the most successful information technology companies in Pakistan named Sofizar. What started off as a recreational venture is now a side-business supplying sustainably produced organic milk, vegetables and meat to nearby Lahore suburbs. The farm is modeled on a cyclical model of minimal wastes and multiple product usage. The cows are fed pesticide-free oats, clover and grass and their manure is used to fuela biogas plant which runs the dairy facility. In an era of electricity load-shedding, such an alternative source of energy at a local industrial scale is immensely valuable to replicate as a development path. The residue of the biogas is used to fertigate the fodder fields and vegetable tunnels, which along with green manuring obviates the use of fertilizers. Free-range chickens grace the fields and there is even a fish farm on site. Zafar and his Ukrainian-born wife are committed to sharing their experiences with other farming entrepreneurs in the country.
Further south in a more rural and remote part of Punjab, famed writer and erstwhile lawyer, Daniyal Mueenudin, maintains a mid-size farm which is exemplifying other kinds of innovations. The farm does not boast ecological farming practices, apart from tunnel farming that can help with land conservation and humidity control. However, Daniyal has changed the social landscape of his area through implementing a “living wage” for all his employees. Noting the high level of inequality in Pakistan’s hinterland, the Yale-educated former director of the university’s Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic, is practicing what he preached. He also owns a farm in Wisconsin and could have a comfortable life in the States but his social obligations keep him ensconced in Pakistan for most of the year.
Raising the wage several-fold for works and farm manager, and also offering bonus incentives for performance, has led to positive competition that can help to erode the feudal levels of income disparity which exist in this part of Pakistan. At the same time, Daniyal is also committed to providing new livelihood paths for the agrarian workers as automation reduces farm employment in some areas. He has has fully funded a school and provided a merit-based scholarship for advanced degrees to students from the nearby village. One of the children from this school (the first in her family to even go to school) is now making his way through medical school in Lahore!
Zafar and Daniyal’s stories of commitment to constructive farming for social and ecological good may appear to be outliers but they are catching on and provide hope to a country which is all too often shadowed by despair. In the suburbs of Islamabad, tax incentives and planning rules to encourage farming by urbanites are leading to a growing culture of reconnecting with the land in residential farms. In rural areas, the disaster caused by the floods of 2010 brought forth numerous aid agencies with new ideas for sustainable farming. The Pakistani diaspora, often known in the West for professions ranging from taxi-driving to engineering, may well find opportunities for reconnecting to their land in far more literal ways. With growing commitment from land-owners it just might be possible to use the existential shock of recent natural disasters that have befallen the country into a proverbial opportunity for positive change.