Saving Afghanistan's Precious Trees

By Amanullah Nasrat and Bashir Babak

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 29, 2005 (ENS) - The authorities are arming and training a "Green Division" to protect Afghanistan's disappearing forests from timber smugglers, who have been operating with increasing impunity for the past three years.

"Afghanistan's forests have been treated mercilessly, and the timber is being smuggled to other countries," Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal told reporters. "Local people and professional smugglers have been particularly active in the eastern and southern regions."

An initial contingent of 300 forest rangers is being sent into the woods, to be deployed along the country’s borders, particularly with Pakistan, where most of the contraband timber is sold. Mashal said his ministry hopes to increase the Green Division's manpower to 2,000 before the end of the year.

They will work in the provinces of Kunar, Paktia and Nuristan on the frontier with Pakistan, and in Badghis province, which borders on Turkmenistan.

Afghanistan

Degraded Olea-Acacia modesta forest in Lagham province, eastern Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy FAO)
Trees are an increasingly rare natural resource in Afghanistan. Sayed Bahram Saeedi, director of forestry at the agriculture ministry, estimated that half of the country’s two million hectares of forest lands have been laid waste during the past 25 years of war and drought.

The United Nations Environment Programme says as much as 70 percent of the natural forests in eastern Afghanistan have been destroyed, and some local experts put the figures even higher.

Saeedi welcomed the formation of the Green Division, but both he and international officials are far from certain that it will have much effect.

Smugglers themselves scoff at the notion. One rogue logger who spoke to a reporter on condition he was not identified claimed to oversee a crew of 300 men operating 70 to 80 power saws in Kunar province. He slaughters six sheep a day to feed them, he said.

He said government efforts to curb the illegal trade were useless because of the bribes paid to police and high-ranking local officials.

"Everyone who comes in as a fresh appointment strikes poses for a few days, but later on they compromise with us," he said. "A new governor needs money too."

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Trees still remain in Kapisa, Afghanistan (Photo courtesy Caritas)
Asadullah Wafa, the governor of Kunar province, confirmed that officials were involved in the illicit export of timber from local forests and said he intended to fire those who accepted bribes from smugglers.

"If they gave me responsibility for the whole division, I can assure you nobody would fell a single tree," he said. "Without an order from the leader of the country, neither I nor any minister is allowed to transport timber."

Still, local people and international officials remained sceptical.

"Right now, thousands of truckloads of timber are stored in each district, and authorities are involved in the transportation," alleged Abdul Halim, who lives in Kunar province.

The Interior Ministry's February 26 decision to form the Green Division also failed to impress Hasan Khawrin, head of the forest reform section of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

"They have neither the budget nor the equipment, nor can they support the division," he said. "It is just useless words. They're trying to deceive people."

Khawrin said he was particularly distressed by the destruction of pistachio trees. A generation ago, he went on, the country had about 450,000 hectares of pistachio groves. Now, half of them are gone.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Amanullah Nasrat is an IWPR staff writer in Kabul. Bashir Babak is a freelance writer in Jalalabad.}