Harvesting Hope; improving the livelihoods of cotton producers in rural Pakistan through agroforestry

By Sheheryar Khan, WWF Pakistan


A stone’s throw from Cholistan desert, the sun-drenched landscape of Bahawalpur (southern Punjab, Pakistan), is of cultural, historical, and architectural significance. Not too long ago, the Nawabs ruled this once elegant and rich princely state. While the Nawabs left behind their palaces – remnants of this bygone era – today, the true heartbeat of this land thrives beyond its city limits. This is not a story of regal opulence of the Nawabs, but of Abdul Jabbar—a humble farmer whose spirit encapsulates the essence of this parched expanse.

The sun relentlessly beats down upon the land. Abdul Jabbar goes about his days tending to his fields and livestock with his wife and four children on a six hectare plot. Jabbar’s family, like so many others in the region, is a cotton farming family whose lives are intricately tied to the rhythm of the seasons and the land. Temperatures during the summers in Bahawalpur can reach up to 50 degrees celsius. Stay too long out in the sun and it starts to pinch and prickle on the skin. And yet, despite the extremity on the thermometer, 56 year old Jabbar and his family spend a better part of almost 15 hours a day outside in the field.

“You know, there used to be no amenities of any sort here. There was no electricity, no roads, no schools. But there used to be a lot of vegetation in this region although that has changed now. It has decreased,” says Jabbar.


And it is true because the intense heat, induced by the changing climate, has greatly affected this region. This has been the challenge for a greater part of Jabbar’s adult life. Crop failures due to rising temperatures and water scarcity had cast long shadows over his livelihood.

Yet, it’s not just the toil in the fields or the scorching sun that keeps him awake at night. It’s the future of his children that occupies his thoughts and their dreams that fuel his hopes. “I wish for my children to be educated so they can get good jobs where they can prosper and lead a healthy and happy life,” he says, his voice filled with determination. Sounding even more resolute he adds, “I do not wish to see them face the same difficulties as I have, spending their lives in the fields under the sun.”

The passage of time has not been kind to this land, and Jabbar’s brow furrows as he speaks of the challenges that have beset him in recent years. The once-abundant waters of the Sutlej river, a lifeline for this region’s agriculture, have dwindled to a mere trickle. “The water table in the region is constantly decreasing,” he explains, drawing a direct link to the effects of climate change. You can sense the concern in his voice. The water table in the Bahawalpur region has gone down from 30 feet to 32 feet in recent years. “The canal here is fed by the Sutlej. Back in my childhood days, there used to be ample water in it, and Sutlej used to be a free-flowing river. Now it has dried up because of climate change.” The implications of this were grave. “Of the six hectare land that we have, we were only able to cultivate crops on one to two hectares. The water used to bring with it the nutrients, once it dried up, the health of the soil deteriorated. I feel living things, be it humans or plants, are similar in many ways. The hotter it gets, the more water you need to survive and replenish yourself. With rising temperatures, the crops also need more water,” explains Jabbar.

Amidst these adversities, the burden of financial hardship also bore down heavily on Jabbar’s shoulders. With four children to provide for between the ages of 10 and 18, sending just one to school was the extent of his financial capacity. The others, compelled by the unforgiving economics of their circumstances, stayed behind to lend their hands to the toil of the fields alongside their parents. The dreams of education, once bright and hopeful, were eclipsed by the pressing need for survival. For a man who had such big dreams for his children, it was crushing for Jabbar to see his children join him on the fields instead of their peers in schools.


© Kashif  Hussain Shah/WWF-Pakistan – Abdul Jabbar’s son Abdul Rehman


Jabbar’s voice carries a heavy burden as he explains, “There weren’t enough alternate opportunities either, which is why we worked longer and harder than ever to get by. It is difficult to survive when inflation is so high. I worry about my children’s future, not mine so much. I live for my children now.”

It was during these trying times that Abdul Jabbar’s life took an unexpected turn. In 2018, an advertisement by WWF-Pakistan about their agroforestry campaign caught his attention. WWF, the leading global environmental conservation organisation, and IKEA, the multinational home furnishing retailer, have been collaborating on an agroforestry and biodiversity conservation initiative that enables smallholder farmers in rural Punjab to earn an alternate source of livelihood from their existing pieces of land.

Since 2005, WWF and IKEA have been working in collaboration to promote sustainable cotton production and the adoption of climate smart practices among rural communities in Pakistan. This partnership is driven by a shared commitment to the sustainable use of natural resources such as cotton, which holds a special place for both organisations. As co-founders of Better Cotton (BC), WWF and IKEA are pioneers in making cotton production more sustainable.  

This is where WWF’s and IKEA’s agroforestry initiative becomes relevant as it has proven to be a successful practice in expanding forest cover while maintaining traditional cotton cultivation. Integrating indigenous trees into cotton landscapes makes the agricultural system more effective: providing multiple ecological and environmental services, such as biodiversity conservation, as well as preventing soil erosion and improving soil fertility. To date, a total of 156 farmers in rural Punjab have benefitted from this project. 

There are also numerous significant benefits for the farmer and the wider community. The plantation of tree saplings, such as acacia, could help reduce the temperature in the area, attract new wildlife, and improve both soil health and livestock grazing, thereby enhancing the overall well-being of the community. Acacia trees are widely recognised as a critical species, upon which the majority of desert wildlife relies, either directly or indirectly, for sustenance and shelter and their plantation in this region intended to offset some of the climate change induced issues faced by the locals. For Jabbar, these trees did not merely provide shade, they enabled his cotton crops to survive the long dry spells by reducing moisture loss through transpiration and creating a more favorable microclimate.  Finding this an attractive opportunity albeit a risky one for someone who was already in tight financial circumstances, Jabbar embarked on the journey of planting acacia saplings. Through this WWF and IKEA partnership project, Jabbar was able to plant more than 9000 saplings.

“There were a lot of uncertainties once I had agreed to this project,” he reflects. “I had six hectares of land, and it was already difficult to cultivate crops on it and utilize all of it. Now, I was taking up additional responsibility to plant these trees and care for them.”


© Kashif Hussain Shah/WWF Pakistan – Agroforestry supports farming families by reducing temperature in the area, attracting new wildlife, and improving both soil health and livestock grazing. 


Even as the acacia saplings showed promise, the arid landscape seemed unforgiving. “Growing these trees still wasn’t an easy job,” Jabbar reflects. “We still didn’t have enough water for our cotton fields.” In a display of family unity and resolve, they devised a method to overcome this obstacle too. Every day they loaded large drums onto their carts. The entire family rallied together, pushing those drum laden carts for kilometres, back and forth, to reach the canal. The water they collected was a lifeline for the fledgling trees.

Jabbar goes on to explain with a broad smile about that moment where he knew that things would work out for the better. “A few weeks after planting, one day my wife came to me in the morning and said that your trees are growing at a good pace,” he recalls. “When I looked at the plantation field, I realised she was right. The saplings were getting taller. I sensed that this was a good sign and that this risk might just pay off.”

The success that followed was nothing short of transformative and since 2020, Jabbar has been reaping the benefits of this programme. In addition to improved soil fertilty and better protection of crops during dry spells, the trees also present an alternate income opportunity for Abdul Jabbar and his family as they are able to sell some of the trees for timber. “I have sold more than 500 trees so far,” he says, his excitement palpable. “Not only this, my livestock has also prospered. Their diet improved, and so their number has multiplied at a good rate as well. Now I am also in the goat farming business! I have sold 30 goats at a good market rate.” 

As the acacia trees flourished, Jabbar’s connection with nature has also deepened. He shared stories of his childhood when this region had much greater vegetation and how the birds used to visit it, but his children couldn’t relate, as water scarcity and disappearing greenery defined their experience. Now, with the trees growing, the once desolate landscape has regained its beauty, and is welcoming birds and nurturing a new ecosystem.


© Kashif Hussain Shah/WWF-Pakistan


And it is not just the trees that have started to take root here; the future of his children also looks brighter and more secure. In 2020, Jabbar’s average monthly income was equivalent to USD 104 which has now jumped to an average of USD 277. With the money he made from selling his first batch of trees and goats, Jabbar explains what went through his mind. “I had never seen this much money in my life. I was overwhelmed. For me it was clear though, I wanted to send my children to school and college. Now my children are pursuing an education which is the biggest joy in my life. I am a humble farmer, nothing more, but my children will become professionals.” This transformation has not only provided financial security for his family but also offers a pathway to a more secure and promising future for the next generation.

Looking ahead, Abdul Jabbar is filled with hope and excitement. In the next 10 to 15 years, his acacia trees can multiply, and he plans to involve his brothers in this eco-friendly business. His voice echoes with optimism. “I have great hope for the future, and I am even excited for it,” he says. “What more can I ask for?”

Read the original story on WWF Exposure here.


© Kashif Hussain Shah/WWF-Pakistan