Afghanistan’s Pistachio Forests Felled for Fuelwood

By Mohammad Saber

HERAT, Afghanistan, May 13, 2010 (ENS) – Mullah Samandar finds it hard to control his emotions as he swings his axe at the trunk of the pistachio tree.

“When I cut down pistachio trees, I cry and my tears don’t stop,” the 55-year-old said, explaining that he has no other way to provide his family with fuel. “Times are hard and I do not have a job, a salary or any opportunity to find a job. We are even forced to eat plants we gather on the mountains.”

Afghanistan once had more than 450,000 hectares (1,737 square miles) of pistachio trees, covering a broad band across the northern part of the country in at least nine provinces. Now, 40 percent of these pistachio forests have been destroyed, according to the ministry of agriculture.

Village with pistachio trees in Afghanistan’s Badghis province. (Photo by Koldo Hormaza)

Officials there attribute this destruction to the effects of the last 30 years of fighting – when the jurisdiction of the central government in the provinces was weak or non-existent – and have now submitted a bill to parliament to protect the pistachio forests.

The problem is particularly acute in the northwest province of Badghis, which has Afghanistan’s highest concentration of pistachio forests. Residents say that poverty and the lack of any other source of fuel is forcing them to cut down the trees for firewood.

Former director of agriculture in Badghis, Gol Ahmad Arefi, says that 50 percent of the province’s 95,000 hectares of pistachio forests – whose crop, he says, was once worth over US$100 million annually – have already been destroyed. Each year, he went on, another 200 hectares of pistachio forest is lost.

“The process will continue as long as the government does not provide the people living near the forests with fuel,” he said, adding that his department had hired 180 guards to protect the forests but that “this number is not enough.”

Government officials acknowledge the fuel shortage problem and say they are investigating solutions.

Ripening pistachio nuts (Photo credit unknown)

Abdolghani Saberi, deputy governor of Badghis, said that the governor and elders of the province had been to Kabul to discuss the crisis with President Hamed Karzai.

“The president promised to solve the problem of a lack of fuel either through the coal mine in the Sabzak area of Badghis or through some other measures,” he said.

Saberi added that there had also been talks with Turkmenistan, which borders the province, about providing electricity to Badghis and that the United States had funded a US$4 million survey into this option.

But officials say that local people must also take responsibility for protecting the pistachio forests, the majority of which are naturally occurring.

Officials want to see an awareness programme to educate people about the importance of maintaining forests and the potential benefits of the pistachio harvest.

A 300-year-old pistacho tree is protected by local residents, Narop, Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy UNEP)

Gholam Haidar Haidari, the director of environment and management of natural resources in the province, said his office is set to launch a new strategy giving local people responsibility for protecting the forests as well as the right to harvest their produce.

“The strategy orders that natural forests be given to the people to use their products, and take an active part in their revitalization and rehabilitation,” he said.

Arefi agreed with this approach. “When the elders and residents of the area are held responsible, they won’t cut down the forests,” he said. “The government should also tell them to plant new saplings annually and provide them with assistance.”

But Abdolmajid Shekib, a member of the Badghis provincial council, said that local people are not the only culprits.

“The main problem is insecurity. The government cannot control these areas properly or impose the rule of law on powerful people. After the collapse of the Taliban, senior government officials have been involved in cutting down forests,” he claimed.

Abdorrazaq Atef, 70, a farmers’ representative in the province, said the guards hired to protect the forests are in fact part of the problem.

“The guards are sellers rather than protectors of the forests. They take money from the people and let them cut down the trees,” he said. “All government employees complain about their low salaries, but these guards have never complained about their pay, which means they have a good income by selling the trees.”

A forest guard, who declined to give his name, said that guards are not paid enough to protect such large areas of forest, and that they could not stand in the way of armed individuals or tribes. “The process will continue,” he said. “Everything will be gone by the time the government wakes up.”

{This article originally published May 13, 2010 by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.