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Palmed off to the high street

Zarwali Khoshnood
Household items made traditionally from the Mazari palm have soared in popularity in Afghan homes, bringing a boost to local craftsmen, the destruction of the habitat of indigenous wildlife, and the mutilation and…
23.09.2013  |  Khost
Attractive traditional handicrafts are making a comeback at the expense of the Mazari palm's future. (Photo: Khoshnood. Main story photo: Noora Jan)
Attractive traditional handicrafts are making a comeback at the expense of the Mazari palm's future. (Photo: Khoshnood. Main story photo: Noora Jan)

Imported plastic dustpans and brushes are out, and old-style brooms, mats and baskets are ‘in’ like never before, says Nusrullah. whose household goods stall in Khost City has witnessed an unprecedented sales boom.

“The market for these items is once again flourishing. Every day we take delivery of tons of reed (palm) and river cane, sell the lot, and the next day our stores are bare again,” he said, gesturing to a colourful array of goods made from nannorrhops ritchiana, or the Mazari palm. 

Found across the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, this impressive spiky-leafed tree can reach up to 12 feet in height – if left to grow. Sadly, few are any more, and the leaves get stripped so voraciously that it is mostly dwarf specimens that remain. 

So critical did the devastation become that Pakistan in 1953 banned unregulated cutting, with hefty nominal jail sentences for violators. But there, as in border regions of Afghanistan, it is still cut rampantly to make a range of products from ropes, baskets, trays, grain bins, cupboards and household ornaments. And nor is it just about pragmatism.

”People who come to buy these items say that they buy them not for daily use but to decorate their homes with," adds Khosrt shopkeeper Ikramullah

”People who come to buy these items say that they buy them not for daily use but to decorate their homes with," says Khost shopkeeper Ikramullah.

In Khost Province, authorities cite presidential instructions to protect forests and plant life that sustain the ecosystem, and the animal life that depends on it, humans included. But, points out Mohammad Mubariz Zadran, spokesman for Khost Governor Abdul Jabar Naimi, there is no real action to outlaw the cutting of the palms: “People living in these mountainous areas have no other employment so they are allowed to cut the plant to find some kind of work and feed their families.”

Chain reaction

A Khost resident sits among Mazari shrubs that will almost certainly not reach maturity. (Photo: Noora Jan)

Some awareness campaigns were conducted in areas of palm growth that form the habitat of the bird population, but it was too little too late, says local biologist and employee of the provincial veterinary department, Dr. Naqibullah.

“We used to have a variety of birds like partridges, and gazelle and other animals across this mountainous and forested region,” he told Afghanistan Today.

“Now all the indigenous animals and birds have migrated to neighbouring countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan because of pervasive deforestation.” 

Adds Khost resident Amir Shah Kargar, “There used to be great jungles of this plant in these areas, but today it is very limited and can only be seen in specific spots."

Shoots of awareness?

But local life and traditions tend to go on irrespective of ecological concerns. Kargar knows the palms from years of labour in the area, and says people will have a hard time regulating its use.

“In any Pashtun household you can always find something made of this reed, maybe a bed or a broom,” he said. The use of these [traditionally made] items has not decreased with new technological advancement, but actually grown, and more and more people are drawn to them."

Today, the palm leaves are an integral part of the handicrafts and local culture in Kohat, Bannu, Mardan and Swat in Pakistan, he said, and in Khost, Paktika and Paktia on the Afghan side.

Practical and affordable as well as ornamental. A bag made from the palm leaves costs just over one US dollar (Photo: Khoshnood)

But do consumers give a thought to where their goods come from?

“It is true that with unregulated cutting of these plants creates huge challenges for birds and animals, and also dries out the landscape,” said Ajmal Jan, a resident Khost's Matoon area. “I think the government should take some [protection] measures.”

He adds that people who cut the palm now generally do not cut the entire plant but rather skim off new shoots. But others see the palm's destruction as just another casualty of war.

“I think deforestation has become widespread as war continues to rage and spread in Afghanistan,” said Khailee Zar Khan Tani, a resident of Khost’s Tani District.

“This has not only affected wildlife but also stamped out very valuable trees such as almond and pine, and affected Afghanistan’s dry fruit exports.”

Ecology, tribal style

The picture looks bleak, but there have been some sporadic local initiatives to preserve the species. In the Algadai area of Jaji Maidan District. the population understood the damage its disappearance was having on the food and water supply.

“We the people got together and decided that wild plants which give beauty to the region and help water reservoirs and water level should be preserved,” said local resident Malik Marjan. 

“People who make beautiful ornamental items are allowed to only cut the branches of the plant, but not tear it out by the roots. And if, God forbids, someone does this, the tribal people will torch the house of the perpetrator and drive them from the area.”

Nannorrhops ritchiana, taken for granted and losing ground. (Photo: Khoshnood) 

Such glimmers of awareness and drastic curbs on use may help preserve the species, but perhaps never again in its full grandeur. And while Afghanistan and Pakistan clash over border amd other issues, they share many challenges as far as their flora and fauna are concerned.

During a 1995 expedition down Pakistan’s border regions, leading British and German palm experts Martin Gibbons and Tobias Spanner lamented the stunted state of most of the Mazari palms they saw.  

“Already one can see vast areas which have been cleared of these palms. If the leaves are continually cut, the plant will eventually die,” they wrote in their account of the trip. “Many of the areas described in the old literature are now quite devoid of palms and those plants that are left are, almost without exception, mutilated.”

The palms were also far removed from what they believe to be the largest known specimen, a 10-12-foot specimen with several separate trunks in the Botanical Garden in Rome. 

“It is quite sad," they concluded, "to contemplate the fact that these poor decimated plants in Pakistan are the same species and could get just as big if they were simply left alone."