‘We’re in crisis’: The high price of deforestation in Afghanistan

Wood has long been a main energy source, which has diminished the country’s forests, but things are changing.

Asef, a wood seller, pictured at his stand in the Pur-e-Surkh district of Kabul [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan – Asef, a 60-year-old wood seller from Kabul, arrives at his stand at 6am. Hard work and the scorching sun have left a mark on his weary skin. For the past 18 years, he has worked seven days a week, 13 hours a day to maintain his family of four. 

Every week or two, depending on the season, Asef buys a truck of wood, which he then cuts into smaller pieces and sells at the local wood market. 

Without education, he has few alternatives.

This year, business has been bad. 

“Our sales have decreased. Spring is one reason, but the main reason is that bread makers who used to use wood have now switched to gas, as it’s cleaner. People are switching to gas these days,” Asef told Al Jazeera. 

In a nearby house, a group of young men sit on mattresses in a small room using a small gas kettle and as they smoke shisha. Alishah Arman, a 28-year-old student of Russian literature, and his flatmates buy Asef’s wood to heat up their house, especially in winter.

“One kilogram of gas costs 60 AFG (74 cents) and seven kilograms of wood is 80 AFG (98 cents). With seven kilograms of wood, we can warm our room for 24 hours. And with one kilogram of gas we can warm our room just for two or three hours,” says Alishah, between sips of tea. 

“Gas is so expensive so we often use wood. We know about the environmental damage it causes. Right now … there is no need for extensive heating so we use gas in small quantity. We would be very happy if the government subsidised the companies that sell gas.”

Climate change has changed Afghanistan and people know very little about its effects, they just know they can cut the trees and sell to Pakistan. Because local people don't invest time to replant the trees, we are in a crisis.

by Sayed Ali Hussaini, environmental expert

But so far, government support for clean fuel is a distant dream.

Wood has long been one of Afghanistan’s main sources of energy, which over the years has had numerous consequences – deforestation and pollution reportedly kill at least 3,000 people a year.

Timber is one of the country’s precious natural resources. Over the past couple of decades, it has become increasingly scarce. According to anecdotal evidence, during the Soviet-Afghan War, groups of mujahideen fighters found safe havens in the country’s vast woods which prompted the Soviets to bomb them. 

Years of war and fighting have had a devastating effect on forests. Many were destroyed, and Afghan authorities caught up in fighting did not see the disappearing forests as a priority.

Meanwhile, by 2013, at least half of Afghanistan’s forests had disappeared.

Timber trade has become a profitable business.

In the eastern provinces, local people and armed groups have been involved in illegal logging of trees which are then transported and sold in neighbouring Pakistan. 

Poverty, the lack of alternative sources of income, and little awareness of the environmental damage deforestation causes, have fuelled illegal trade.

“The areas near the border with Pakistan have a lot of good quality wood, but over the past three decades the government was unable to control the informal trading. Our leaders know about the problem but we lack regulation to ban it and we lack policy to do it,” Sayed Ali Hussaini, an environmental expert, told Al Jazeera. 

Since the Afghan government has limited control over large swaths of land in these areas, it has been difficult to control and tame the practice. 

This is especially because in a number of cases, local government officials and Afghans connected to the military were involved in the illegal business. 

“It’s difficult to say who is behind the trade. But I hear a lot of stories that the government people and local authorities are behind tree logging. Pakistani people help them and give them a lot of money to cut the forests, business thus is supported by the government; military people must be involved in it, too,” Hussaini said.

Afghan men sit at their firewood stall in Kabul, Afghanistan November 14, 2018 [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

Over the past several years, the Afghan government has been taking note of the environmental damage resulting from deforestation. 

The ministry of agriculture, irrigation and livestock together with the international community have launched projects to repair the damage.

By 2025, the Afghan government plans to increase the forest area to the pre-2000 size of 1.9m hectares. 

“Over the past four years we reconstructed some of the forests and the forest area increased from 1.3 to 1.62m hectares,” Akbar Rostami, the spokesman of the ministry of agriculture, irrigation and livestock told Al Jazeera.

“We are past the period of illegally cutting the forests and now we are working on rebuilding them. There are still areas where people illegally cut the trees, but we work together with the ministry of interior and the ministry of defence to prevent the practice.”

He added that the government is working with local communities in affected areas to prevent further deforestation.

Reforestation projects

In the Paktia and Paktika provinces, the government planted 8.2 million pine trees and works with local elders to educate communities and give people a chance to benefit from forests by, for example, using their fruits, rather than cutting wood. 

But deforestation is only one of Afghanistan’s many environmental challenges – including droughts and floods, worsened by climate change, as well as a lack of water and poor management of the country’s natural resources.

“All of these things are very interrelated: climate change and overuse of land are making lands barren, and the continuing conflict prevents many development agencies, the UN included, from going into places to implement projects to restore ecosystems because it’s just too insecure,” Rajendra Aryal, the Country Representative for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera.

The FAO has been subsidising fuel-efficient heating and cooking technology, such as tandoors that use less wood, and solar-powered stoves, so that local people can preserve their environment and their health. It has also been replanting pistachio forests to provide people with a high-value crop, and building biogas digesters that turn animal dung into cooking gas.  

“We’re increasingly designing projects holistically: we are trying to avoid having projects just on irrigation water, just on rangeland rehabilitation, just on food stocks, or just on disaster response, but rather we are looking at them all together and designing projects that address the interlinkages,” Aryal said.

An Afghan man cuts firewood to be sold in Kabul on January 15, 2014 [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

In an unlikely alliance, the government’s efforts to save Afghanistan’s woodlands have been supported by the Taliban, although, reportedly, the group has been benefitting from illegal logging. 

In 2017, the Taliban stated that planting trees was an Islamic obligation and urged the people of Afghanistan to “plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of Earth and the benefit of almighty Allah’s creations.”

But the concerted efforts of the Afghan government and the international community might prove not to be enough to save Afghanistan’s woodlands. 

“We will not have nice forests in Jalalabad and other areas in one decade. Natural resources in the area are getting destroyed by the local people, who have no awareness of this important issue,” said Hussaini, the environmental expert.

“Climate change has changed Afghanistan and people know very little about its effects, they just know they can cut the trees and sell to Pakistan. Because local people don’t invest time to replant the trees, we are in a crisis.”

Source: Al Jazeera