Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

AFGHANISTAN: Forests Shrinking Due to Illegal Trade, Lack of Gov’t Rules

Nadeem Yaqub

CHAMAN, Pakistan, Apr 27 2001 (IPS) - Away from the busy road, behind the automobile spare-parts shops and electronic goods market, three labourers unload wooden sleepers from a truck here at the Pakistan-Afghan border, in the north of Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

What they are involved in is an open secret. In this rugged and desolate area, the ever spreading stockpiles of wood are enough evidence of a booming timber business that has its roots across the border in Afghanistan.

Chaman is the middle point for timber dealers who source their goods from Afghanistan. Some of the trade is legitimate, but those in the know say most of the logs that pass through here are products of illegal activities that are threatening Afghanistan’s forests.

For the illegal timber trade that ends up in Pakistan, the starting point is Afghanistan’s north-eastern province of Kunar, which shares a 200-km border with this South Asian country.

Kunar, which boasts of steep mountains and narrow valleys, has highly commercial coniferous forests mainly comprising cedrus deodara, pinus gerardiana and pinus wallchiana.

Some parts of these forests were destroyed during Afghanistan’s two decades of conflict, but large areas managed to survive — until now.

About three decades ago, the Afghan government imposed a ban on cutting of trees by the tribal leaders as well as dealers. But then Afghanistan was plunged into a long-drawn war and rules were soon forgotten.

Now the Taliban rules most of the country. Just like in other remote places in Afghanistan, however, the Taliban in reality has control of only some areas in Kunar. The rest are held by either the opposition or local leaders.

With no single authority in place, the forests are practically free for the taking by those who want to make money out of trees.

Indeed, these days, tribal conflicts and the rampant activities of “timber mafias” are all but guaranteeing that many of Afghanistan’s forests will soon become bare.

According to Afghan environmentalist Naseer Ahmed, rivalries among the tribal leaders or the local commanders have even led to forest fires as one side tried to damage the other economically.

He cites a July 1999 “intentional” fire in the Kunar forest that ate up trees in the 25-km radius between Asadabad and Karangai towns.

Pakistani shopkeeper Haji Haleem, who travelled through Kunar to reach Pakistan’s tribal areas two weeks ago, also reports seeing piles and piles of timber along the Kunar River and the main road, ready to be transported to Pakistan’s tribal areas.

He also saw logs floating in the river, a traditional method of shifting timber from up to downstream.

Environmentalists, however, also note that most rural Afghans depend on wood as fuel. They say woodcutting for the purpose of fuel has already caused soil erosion in several areas of Afghanistan during the last few years.

Ghulam Mohammad Malikyar, head of the Peshawar-based group Save the Environment Afghanistan (SEA), comments, “Though Kunar is densely forested, decades of lawlessness and plundering have resulted in vast gaps in the forests.”

A SEA report released in May estimated the total loss of forests in Kunar to be already around 450 to 600 hectares.

The situation is also critical in other parts of the country. According to a SEA report compiled in 1999, forest depletion was continuing at a fast pace in the central Ajar valley. The report also said that the locals were cutting as much as 300 donkey-loads of juniper and other bushes daily.

“Green cover in major cities has decreased as 60 percent of standing trees were felled by Mujahideen groups and government officials,” Malikyar says. “The only trees spared in major cities — Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Parawan — are those around sacred places like shrines.”

The last time estimates were made on Afghanistan’s forest cover was in 1989, when it was believed to be around 2.6 percent of the land area. Experts estimate that Afghanistan loses at least 20,000 hectares each year.

“When so much money is involved, who cares about forests,” remarks Pakistani official Abdul Basit, who is posted at Chaman town.

In truth, Pakistani authorities do not seem to be bothered with what is happening across the border. Another official says that the provincial government of Balochistan issues 200 to 250 permits every month for timber import from Afghanistan.

Dealers from all over Pakistan pick up the “merchandise” here at Chaman, some 140 kms in the north of the Balochistan capital of Quetta.

But Pakistan is not the only country that receives Afghan timber. Iqbal Khattak, a Peshawar-based journalist who visited Kabul recently, asked where the timber he saw loaded in trucks there were bound. He was told that the timber was being exported to the Middle Eastern countries.

To be sure, though, natural disasters have also had their share in the depletion of the Afghanistan’s forests. In the last two years alone, two major flash-storms hit Kunar and wiped out roughly 200 hectares of forests in the province.

But the chances of saving Afghan forests appear dim since timber is a major source of revenue for so many groups, including the Taliban.

A country still struggling to get back on its feet even as it is treated as a pariah by the international community is also unlikely to have the environment among its priorities.

Environmentalists now say that Afghans may soon find themselves having to import timber. SEA estimates that 2.5 million trees would have to be felled to reconstruct all the major cities, with Kabul alone needing least 147,000.

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