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Badakhshan crafts in decline due to lack of investment and cheap imports

Khushqadam Usmani
For hundreds of years the handmade crafts of Badakhshan attracted buyers from across the Silk Road. But cheap Chinese imports coupled with a domestic lack of investment have left many crafts fighting for their survival.
23.06.2015  |  Faizabad
Abdul Qadoos, coppersmith.  (photo: Khushqadam Usmani)
Abdul Qadoos, coppersmith. (photo: Khushqadam Usmani)

The sound of a hammer forging copper formed a soundtrack to Faizabad's handcraft markets 50 years ago, when hundreds of coppersmiths sold plates, pots and copper ornaments in the bustling northern Afghan Silk Road town. Now Badakhshan's once thriving crafts industry is on the verge of collapse due to the failure of past governments to invest in the sector and the influx of cheaper products from China and Pakistan, according to the chief government economist in the province.

Our forefathers and fathers made copper dishware and we ate from them and loved them. Now the sons have forgotten the old craft and the copper dishes have been replaced with Chinese and Pakistani imports,”Abdul Ghafoor Farogh, Director of Economic Affairs in Badakhshan, told Afghanistan Today.

Farogh says reviving the industry is “at the top of the economic agenda” and that the government is working with relevant local partner organisations to inject new energy into handcrafts. Meanwhile new distribution channels are being sought and craftsmen are being supported, according to Farogh. “We are looking to resuscitate such local industries,” he says. “We have skilled, hardworking labour with plenty of raw materials in Badakhshan province, we only have to support them. We reached a consensus about the coppersmith industry as one of the top prioritized local industries that must be revived with help from other relevant organizations.”

The head of the local crafts association in Badakhshan, Naimatullah Ghanizada, says the government has done little to revive the sector and that the worsening security situation has only scared away other stakeholders. “We have formed associations of different craftsmen in each district and have handed our suggestions for assistance to donor organizations involved with the revival of local industries, but unfortunately the latest instabilities have disheartened donor organizations,” Ghanizada told Afghanistan Today.

Women and the disabled prioritised

Officials however point to specific recent programmes which have diversified artisanship in the province. “Although the government has not paid due attention to crafts made by Afghan men, considerable attention has been paid to handcrafts produced by Afghan women and now we have 421 women and 25 disabled men involved in producing handcrafts like table cloths and weaved jackets,” says Safiullah Etemadi, spokesman for the Department of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled (MOLSAMD) in Badakhshan. But even Etemadi concedes that budgetary constraints prevent the government from conducting an adequate assessment of needs “to recommend revival steps for these local crafts industries.”

The decline of the coppersmith industry is symptomatic of a broader economic malaise in the handcraft sector in Faizabad: goldsmithery, blacksmithery, traditional architecture, embroidery, shoemaking, pottery, as well as the various local forms of weaving – burlap, Kilim, Chakman and Alcha – are all suffering. Experts say resuscitating these sectors is vital to any future local prosperity, primarily because the province's mountainous terrain means the economy has always traditionally relied on industry, not agriculture.

Man v machine

Ghulam Mohammad Atashpour, an economist based in Badakhshan, believes the old crafts will struggle to survive and compete with cheaper, mass-produced imports. “With the arrival of modern machinery, handmade production lost its place and is extinct,” says Atashpour. “Handmade products are time consuming and on the other hand hard to produce,” he adds, arguing that the government should invest into more niche products like cashmere, which still have a strong market.

Abdul Qadoos, a coppersmith in his 60s in Faizabad, is proof that the craft is not yet extinct although his profession is an endangered craft. Qadoos inherited it from his father and has been working in the trade for the last 50 years. “From the stretch of Pamir to the gates of the valleys, people would flock to buy our products, we had plenty of work and the income was good,” remembers Qadoos fondly. Now that the market is “flooded with cheap Chinese plastic dishes,” Qadoos struggles to make a living. His son, Abdul Nasir, is also a trained coppersmith, although he prefers to work as a security guard for 400 USD per month, ensuring yet another coppersmith family leaves the business.

Hammer in peril

I need to work for about four days to finish a copper teapot but it won't sell in a month", says Abdul Nasir, Abdul Qadoos' son. “I can't make 5 USD a day selling copper.” Nasir says neither he nor his father have yet received any government support and that without a concerted effort from local authorities to subsidise coppersmithery, it is unlikely either he or his father will be beating a hammer for too much longer.

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