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
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.