Afghanistan’s Forests : Bare Mountains, Poor People

Afghanistan’s Forests : Bare Mountains, Poor People

Missing trees reflect the country’s woeful recent history


WHITE peaks, brown hills, a muddy river and pungent blue wood-smoke in Faisabad, the largest city in opposition-controlled Afghanistan, all mark the opening of the latest chapter in the dismal story of the country’s environmental collapse. Afghanistan is now losing its last trees for firewood, or for export by the Pakistan-based logging mafia. The latest estimates are that forest cover is now below 0.5% of the country’s land, down from more than 3% in 1980. By 2005, environmentalists fear, all the natural woods will have gone.

Like most Afghans, Faisabad’s population of more than 100,000 relies entirely on firewood for cooking and heating. The price in the bazaar is soaring as snow starts to cloak the mountains—a sign of winter’s arrival in the valleys sometime next month. A donkey-load of fuel to provide warmth for a family for a few days costs $7—more than the average weekly wage.

"The wild trees that we can reach have gone. Now we are buying wood from farmers, who are cutting their trees because they have nothing else to sell. When that is gone, only God knows what we will do,"’ says a wood-trader in the bazaar. Nearby, a three-year-old child picks up some crumbs of donkey dung and puts them carefully in a bag she is dragging behind her. For families that cannot afford firewood, dried animal droppings are the last resort.

Last winter, aid agencies started providing other fuel, such as coal and paraffin, for destitute families. This winter they plan to do more, probably also including liquid-fuel stoves, which few Afghan families own. For a sickly and ill-nourished population, the fuel shortage will make things even worse. Poorly-cooked food brings stomach bugs, and unheated homes mean coughs, colds and worse.

Twenty years ago, when Afghanistan still had a functioning forestry service, the hills around Faisabad were thickly wooded. Since then deforestation, a three-year drought and poverty have formed a vicious circle. Wars since 1979 have ended all controls, while greatly increasing the number of poor people desperate to fell any tree they can find. Now the hills are a barren brown in all directions.

When the trees go, the soil follows. The first rain of the year, which fell last week, turned the Kukcha river, a snow-fed torrent that rushes through the town, from its normal milky jade to a muddy brown. Water sweeping off the mountains also causes floods, which destroy irrigation canals and can even sweep away the mud huts in which most rural Afghans live.

Many of the trees smell delicious when burnt. But the scent is bitter-sweet. When alive they were rural money-makers: the source of mulberries, walnuts, juniper berries, apricots and pistachios. Even with a mighty forestation effort, they will take a generation to replace.

There are some glimmers of hope. A Norwegian aid agency is persuading villages in the Keshem region, where there are still some natural forests, to appoint local forest wardens, who are paid in sacks of donated wheat. Villagers there hear lectures on conservation at Friday prayers in the mosque. There are pilot-projects with fast-growing trees that can be pollarded for firewood, and drip-feed irrigation for saplings. One ingenious device generates gas from animal droppings, replacing firewood altogether. Dig a deep hole, add 60 kilos of dung and 60 litres of water every day, and you will generate enough methane for a 16-person household.

All these are good ideas, no doubt. But none of them will have much effect without peace and a proper government.

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