Posted by: Christian | January 5, 2008

Timberlords and the Deforestation of Afghanistan

January 5, 2008.

It’s an understatement to say that Afghanistan has more than a few problems. If the security, governance and drug problems disappeared overnight there would obviously remain many difficult issues. One of the problems that has received very little attention is environmental issues. Pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, health issues, lack of clean water, overgrazing and deforestation are usually put forward as the most pressing of these issues. In order not to overwhelm myself trying to fit all this issues into one entry I will focus only on deforestation, especially in the east.

Pic: Deforestation in Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan provinces between 1977 and 2002. The dark green signifies land with over 40% tree cover.

Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar

The 2002 UNEP analysis found that:

Nangarhar province has been the hardest hit, with a 71 per cent decrease in forest cover. Meanwhile, forest cover in Nuristan has decreased by 53 per cent, and Kunar by 29 per cent. Residents predict similar losses for the forested regions in the provinces of Paktya, Khost and Paktika.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) notes that the deforestation in Kunar and Nuristan began in the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, a 2002 report by IWPR claims that the rate of deforestation in this area increased dramatically with the fall of the communist government in Kabul. And what of the Taliban government’s forest policy?

“People expected the Taleban to save the forests as it is a religious duty. But instead they actually made it easier (for the timber thieves) by opening up roads to the forest on the pretext of clearing old cut trees. It only cleared the way for locals to cut down even more trees and export the timber abroad.”

Sher Ahmedi, an Afghan environmental expert, explained how the Taliban made massive profits off the timber industry by closing the border in Nangarhar to the timberlords and forcing trucks to detour 800km to Kabul, then on to Kandahar before finally crossing at Chaman where the Taliban had a higher level of control and could extract maximum tariffs.

“The Taleban took 28,000 Pakistani rupees in duty (460 US dollars) from just one truck on the Chaman border near Khandahar. Three hundred trucks a day were making the same journey at that time.”

The fall of the Taliban ended this massive detour and the Timber barons were free to cross east of Jalalabad, greatly easing their transportation concerns and bringing them higher profits.

Pic by Martyn Murray: Timber smuggling in full force in 2002.

Timber truck afghanistan

Ahmedi expressed his frustration about the attitudes of the locals as well:

“We tried very hard to convince the local people that the forest is part of the national wealth but they won’t accept what we say. We complained to the agriculture ministry as well but they have no authority here. They keep talking aimlessly on the radio about the government of the nation. But in Kunar everyone is king and does whatever he wants.”

While the UNEP notes that thousands of locals depend on this trade for a living, the IWPR report notes that some people in the area were not happy about the trade. Said a tribal elder in Kunar:

“It is depressing to think of the Pakistani traders just buying all our forests. They get the advantage, not the Afghans.”

The UNEP agrees:

…many local communities have lost control over their resources and forests are being consumed for immediate profit by a very small minority. Warlords, ‘timber barons’ and traders from other countries have sought to make windfall profits from current export opportunities.

The UNEP (2002) figures confirm this when analyzing the prices for beams of Deodar cedar:

Cedar trees are typically cut into beams measuring 15 cm deep by 30 cm wide by 2.5 metres long (0.11 cubic metres per beam). Local communities obtain between US$3–5 dollars per beam. The same beam can be sold for US$50 in Afghan markets and up to US$85 in Pakistan.

Pic by Anthony Fitzherbert: $10 Mule ($170 mule in Pakistan).

mules in afghanistan

As result of this price discrepancy the Pakistan market offers the most logical place to sell one’s product:

Due to the high prices in Pakistan, local timber yards reported that for every 15 trucks of timber that transit through Jalalabad, 10 go to Pakistan, 3 continue to Kabul, and 2 remain in Jalalabad for local consumption. If this division is reflective of the regional situation, export markets in Pakistan could account for approximately 66 per cent of the timber cut.

In 2002 the number of trucks seen on Kunar roads varied between 25-50 per day. The UNEP listed some of the proposed remedies that included alternative livelihoods projects, an “Afghan Conservation Corps” to rehabilitate deforested areas, and enforcement in the form of a “Green Force.”

Pic: Arizona National Guard soldiers patrol Nuristan, minus trees.

Arizona Nationa Guard in Afghanistan

But this is all a description of the situation in 2002. A September 2005 article in The Independent serves as sort of an update. The article focuses on the work of the French NGO MADERA, a rather brave little outfit that works on rural projects in Kunar and Nuristan. One employee noted that difficulties still exist:

“We’ve been trying to explain to the people in Konar that cutting down the forest like this is not sustainable, but they just don’t see it that way. If they need wood, they cut down the first tree they see.”

A different employee then expresses some optimism about the neighboring Nuristan province:

“The Nuristanis look after the forest because they really understand that if the forest disappears, they will disappear with it.”

Pic By Saleem Nuristani: Parun, Nuristan, Afghanistan.

Parun (Paroon) Nuristan

I’m not in Nuristan, this French guy is/was. However, I refer to the satellite image of Nuristan that shows somebody in Nuristan is/was enthusiastic about cutting down trees.

The same Frenchman then discussed the Taliban and the Americans:

“The smugglers are not supporting the Taliban at all,” says Mr Alain de Bures, “but they’re not happy with the presence of the Americans because they can’t do the timber trade properly. The problem with the Americans is that they see everything in black and white.”

De Bures goes on to complain at length about the Americans, including the rather legitimate gripe about the Americans setting up shop next to the MADERA compound and drawing in rocket fire to the neighborhood. But then he makes a rather important concession:

There have been some benefits from the US presence in Konar, says Mr de Bures. Because the timber-smugglers use the same passes to cross the Pakistani border as the Taliban and foreign militants, US forces are now patrolling the entire border and stopping timber smugglers as well as insurgents.

Better still, Mr de Bures says, the new Governor of Konar province, Asadullah Waffa, has clamped down hard on the timber-smuggling and recently brought it to a virtual standstill.

Pic of soldier in Nuristan: “Put down the chainsaw and step away from the tree!”

US army Nuristan

So the Americans and an American backed governor have stopped the worse of the timber smuggling? That would be great news. Has the American presence plus the consolidation of a certain amount of power by Karzai-appointed governors in the area stopped the worse of the harvesting? If anybody has an update on this let me know. The latest news I have seen is of University Of British Columbia forestry professor Gary Bull’s forest management project for Nuristan, funded by USAID and in cooperation with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. The project is in the initial survey phase but seems quite interesting since it combines the science of forestry with the sorta science of sociology to come up with forest management solutions that conserve while not impacting locals in too negative a fashion.

Unfortunately, some areas are beyond needing enforcement because there are no trees left. Hopefully reforestation projects in these areas get the attention they deserve. The province of Badghis is a sad example of this.

Pic: Badghis province, 1977 and 2002. No need for enforcement on this side of Afghanistan.


It is possibly that the worst of the timber smuggling has ceased due to a combination of (a) shortage of easily accessible trees for the harvesters plus (b) American and Afghan government enforcement. But even presuming that is a fact, there still occurs deforestation due to overgrazing, local use of lumber and the burning of firewood. More problems within a problem within Afghanistan.

Further reading: The January 2003 United Nations Environmental Program post-conflict assessment for Afghanistan (pdf).


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