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Af-Pak 2013: War on the woodlands

Abdur Razzaq and Seyam Waak
Environmental ill-effects of war and insurgency are generally not a concern for the battling forces. In forestry, however, the consequences of non-regulation in volatile areas are becoming increasingly apparent, as…
17.12.2013  |  Swat Valley/Asadabad
Pines and cedars can take more than 40 years to mature. The clear-cutting of woodland, with no regard to the age of trees felled, prevents sustainable forest growth. (Photo: Abdur Razzaq)
Pines and cedars can take more than 40 years to mature. The clear-cutting of woodland, with no regard to the age of trees felled, prevents sustainable forest growth. (Photo: Abdur Razzaq)

A policeman demands money from the timber smuggler to take his load through the checkpoint in the dead of the night. The man at the wheel of the truck rolls his eyes, hands the officer a few hundred Pakistani rupees and continues on his way to the Kunar Province capital Asadabad.

This is how illegal loads usually come and go, the black market extension of a booming timber trade paralysed by a presidential decree in 2005, which outlawed transports of anything other than finished wood products from provinces.

Designed to bolster Kabul’s tax revenues, it backfired. Instead, it increased armed opposition to the government and drove the timber business further underground. Thousands of cedar and pine blocks litter hillsides where felling was supposedly halted. But the trucks keep rolling and trees falling more than ever in certain areas, say locals. 

“If the logging continues on such a scale all of the forests in the province will be destroyed,” says Wahidullah, a resident of Manogai District, one of the most timber-rich and fought-over in Afghanistan.

Since US forces withdrew from Manogai's Korengal Valley three years ago after losing more than 40 men killed, logging restarted illegally here and other parts of the district.

The business is run by the ‘timber mafia’, local insurgents and corrupt officials, united in their wish to capitalize on the proximity of Pakistan, where timber can be sold more profitably.

Under President Hamid Karzai’s decree, lumber is taxed at 300 afghanis (5.5 US dollars) a block and must be first processed into end products like doors and furniture before it can be moved out of the province of origin. But according to locals in Kunar, lumberjacks increasingly come from across the border and “large machines have been brought from Pakistan to get the job done.” 

Ravaged Pakistani tourist haven

Loggers at work in Swat. (Photo: Abdur Razzaq)

Across the border in the Pakistani district of Swat, damage caused by rampant felling is easier to assess now that hostilities largely ceased. Located just 60 miles from the capital Islamabad and known for its breathtaking scenery and tourism, Swat became a militant haven in 2007 until it was cleared in a major government operation.

“In 2007, when the militancy was at its peak in Swat, the militants initially relied on ‘donations’ but later started deforesting the region to raise money,” Hazer Gul, a 40-year-old social activist from Swat, told Afghanistan Today. 

Deforestation continues because forestry authorities do not move against the logging gangs, he claimed. Timber mafia with the help of government officials are clear-cutting huge areas of Swat, says Gul. The wood is sold in other parts of the country with no regulation and barely a rupee paid in tax.

War damage, saw damage 

In Kunar, Abdul Ghias, director of the provincial Department for Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, estimates that 40 per cent of the forest in Kunar has been destroyed in the past decade, including 250 acres of forest burned down in the fighting.

Manogai and other districts like Shigal, Chapa Dara, Asmar and Narray “have lately suffered an unprecedented amount of deforestation and logging,” he said.

Add the problems of erosion and resultant flood damage as hit Pakistan in 2010, and the effects are far-reaching. Extensive landslides happened in Swat and other deforested areas. 

In Kunar, Najibullah Kunari, director of the provincial Environmental Protection Agency, says wildlife has also been badly affected. And if rampant logging is not stopped, "Kunar's big rivers will face problems. Due to high levels of carbon, glaciers will melt down and trigger devastating floods." 

Rethink for logging policy?

Haji Mohammad Jalal, the chairman of Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) in Kunar, says tens of thousands of timber blocks have been lying idle on hillsides for almost nine years because merchants cannot get permits to transfer the timber to other provinces or abroad.

Thousands of blocks of wood were left to rot in Kunar's Korengal Valley because of paralysis of the lumber industry over taxation. Here, US troops use a woodpile as cover during a 2008 engagement with insurgents. (Photo: Nick Allen)

Jalal has repeatedly urged the Kabul government to slacken the restrictions so business can legally resume, but still only ready-processed items may be moved. So the timbers rot.

The only people who prosper are those who pay police bribes, says local businessman Naqibullah. “The timber won't make much money here, and it is prohibited to take it to other provinces and countries," he said. "We have lost all the money we had."

It is much the same story of corruption in Swat, says the environmental activist Gul. "Powerful people are involve in these immoral activities, and local people cannot say a word against them," he told Afghanistan Today, adding that conservationists even saw locals in the Kalam area loading timber onto state-owned vehicles.

“The forests are being cut in places where the government does not have control,” said the head of Kunar's security department, General Abdul Habib Saidkhail, who strenuously denied any police involvement in the illegal timber trade.

And the growth prospects..? 

Kunar's governor, Shujaul Malik Jalala, says his team have stepped up efforts to prosecute timber smugglers. Illegal logging continues in remote areas of the province, he acknowledges. “But so do talks with tribal leaders about how they can effectively protect forests and prevent timber smuggling in their areas.” 

In Swat, the relative peace that returned from 2009 gives hope of some genuine regulation and restoration of the damage. And awareness is perhaps greater here, given Swat's dependence on tourism.

“We realize that these trees and forests are the sole source of natural beauty of this region," said 50-year-old local man Zalmay. "Because of these forests and scenic views people from across the country and other parts of the world used to visit the valley.” But with no gas or electricity here, homes still also need an endless supply of wood, he added, while sawing at a large pine.

An active defender of the forests is the president of Swat Hotel Association, Zahid Khan, who is also the chairman of the Public Safety and Police Complaints Commission.

Extensive deforestation began in Swat in 1969 when the separate political entity was absorbed by Pakistan and control of the area handed over to the bureaucracy. Forts and police stations were shut down by the local administration "just to extract wood for construction purposes,” said Khan. 

His activism is a dangerous activity: In August, unidentified gunmen shot him in the neck and face several times but he miraculously survived and now has a permanent two-man police guard.

Khan is also the owner and carer of a forest of 12,000 trees. “This is my personal forest and I try my best for safeguarding of the forest but still people cut trees and branches.”

Scars of logging in Swat. (Photo: Abdur Razzaq)

Mir Wali Khan, the head of Swat's forestry department, says the damage escalated in 2007 when his employees had to stop working in the field because of the worsening security situation.

Militant logging destroying 726,589 cubic feet of trees worth 70 million rupees (650,000 dollars), he says. Now though, two main checkpoints in Swat are efficient in their control of illegal timber transport.

"In the last five to six months we have impounded 15 trucks of timber and recovered millions of rupees in fines," Khan said.

Guards are now posted in most large forests, and the department is planning a major replanting operation. Although with the trees taking several decades to mature, the scars will be evident for a long time.

Meanwhile, developments in the armed conflict in both countries do not improve Kunar’s prospects for a forest revival. The former leader of the Swat militants, Mullah Fazlullah, whose forces allegedly presided over rampant clear-cut logging, is now said to have set up base in the Afghan province after becoming the head of the Pakistan Taliban in November.