Sunday, March 22, 2009


Though 80% of the land area of this country is desert, the area where we live is fairly well covered in forest. And one can't help but notice all the cut lumber lying along the roads and in the ravines...which leads one to ask himself, "What's with all the lumber lying around?"

Apparently, this region used to have quite a substantial trade in timber, but since many of the proceeds were going to fund the wrong sorts of activities, the lumber trade and felling of trees in general was banned throughout the entire country back in 2004. The lumber trade brought in a substantial amount of money to this region of the country in particular, not only in revenue to the local traders but in taxation as well, so the local people were not exactly happy to lose this revenue source, which probably helps explain some of the general antipathy the people here feel towards the government as a whole.

Not only now, but also during the Taliban time the lumber trade was officially banned, but the Taliban allowed quite a bit of lumber to be felled and exported...some 200 trucks daily left the country with wood according to sources, as opposed to much fewer today. I'm not sure why the Taliban bothered to ban the lumber trade at all, as they surely weren't concerned with the thoughts and opinions of international environmental groups, but officially banned was the lumber trade in those times.

And so the government ban has led to the sides of the roads being littered with cut lumber, which apparently has already been sold to the buyers but can't be delivered. Estimates vary as to the value of the cut but unsold/undelivered wood in the country as a whole, but the amount of money is large. Of course, given the lack of government presence where we are (the ANA I work with are the only "government" in these parts) small scale use of trees and lumber continues. We actually have a small lumber mill 100 meters from our base. We've talked to the owners about it and were informed they only cut wood for local home construction/repair, which seems fair enough to us so we leave them alone. On my base we actually rent our wood that was used to construct the base...350 pieces of lumber for $30/month. I'm not sure why we didn't just buy the wood outright, but then $30 a month doesn't seem like much. Of course, we have numerous individuals claiming the wood on the base belongs to them. These individuals often try to reclaim the wood or get some compensation for it. We tell them to show us a contract (like the aforementioned 350 for $30) saying the wood is theirs or get everyone in the area together to talk to us about who owns which wood; this does the trick in getting them to go away. Trying to get payment from one person and then again from someone else or payment for things that don't even belong to them are tricks the Afghans are very good at.

The Afghan soldiers I work with and I are banned from cutting wood just like anyone else, but since, as I stated before, we are the government here we more or less decided it would be ok for us to cut what we need to stay warm. Perhaps we're not setting the right example, but what choice do we really have? Incidentally, now that's it's mid-March the weather has already warmed up enough to obviate the need for firewood at's going to be an early, hot summer....

Perhaps half the people in this province have electricity (much fewer in less-developed areas), so many depend on wood to heat their homes and cook their food. A family of 20 (the homes here are pretty big and will have multiple generations living together) will use probably two large truckloads of wood a year. Where we are, we don't see a lot of tree cutting, but we do see people gathering sticks of wood and brush all the time. This work is often done by the women, but not exclusively so.

As for taxation, as you can imagine in a society like this, tax collection is not something that is done in an organized manner. The taxation on things like lumber was done by the foot and charged at the local level - total bill often depending on who the trader was (Read: if you have money and connections you can enter the business...if not, you're frozen out either with threats, prohibitive costs, or both.).

Afghanistan surprisingly has six National Parks/Wildlife Refuges at this time. I find it hard to believe that the local tribes would allow the government to take their land for something like that, but the parks exist. Certainly, the restricted areas are a step in the right direction, for the country as a whole has lost more than half of its forests since the 1970's, but given the magnitude of the country's problems, to worry about the environment at this time seems a bit absurd. A rich, stable country can afford to worry about environmental degradation - Afghans need to worry about where their next meal is coming from - concerns like soil erosion are far from their thought processes. A step in the right direction would be to develop some type of value-added industry to the wood business, rather than cheaply selling and then shipping all the lumber to Pakistan or parts further and allowing those countries to sell it at much higher prices after it's been turned into a piece of furniture.

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