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Afghans see forests, tree by tree

To aid reforestation, programs provide short-term gains, too.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2005


Each day, dozens of trucks piled high with firewood pass over the moonscape of Paktia Province on the road to Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. The local cutters who supply the convoys must head ever higher up the increasingly bare mountainsides to bring back a day's living bundled on donkeys.

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The growing scarcity, along with surging demand from Kabul's revived economy, has sent firewood prices up fivefold and construction timber up sevenfold since Taliban times. Wood is Afghanistan's oil - a key resource that everyone worries is running out.

"One day, if we do not prevent the cutting, we will not have trees," says Lal Kham, a wood seller in Kabul. This month, the UN estimated that Afghan forests could be wiped out by 2030.

Faced with a long-term problem that rarely gets sustained attention from donors and politicians, groups working on reforestation have developed some clever - albeit limited - ways to turn Afghans into Johnny Appleseeds.

Crouching down in his field, Ismail weeds a plot of poplar saplings in Guldara village, about 30 miles north of Kabul. The trees, provided to farmers with the help of a loan by the Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA), a New York-based group working for Afghan economic and environmental development, have been split into two sections - one for timber production, and one for cuttings to be sold to neighboring farmers to grow. After just one year, Ismail (who declined to give his last name) will be able to get six cuttings per tree and more in following years. The cuttings will provide him with some annual income until he is able to harvest the timber trees, which take seven years to reach maturity.

After receiving 2,600 cuttings from the GPFA, each farmer will make a projected $2,750 over seven years - and will repay the GPFA in cuttings.

"We are against cutting the forest trees. We are happy to plant new trees," says Ismail. "We want our country to be green."

Apple trees offer bigger long-term payoffs, but farmers must wait four years for the trees to bear fruit. GPFA has given each farmer 50 fruit trees and taught them how to prune them. Once mature, each apple tree will produce approximately 1,200 pounds of fruit per year. That represents more than $300 at current market prices. Before collecting this windfall though, farmers must find an alternative source of income. The GPFA has taught the farmers to plant vegetables between the rows of trees.

So far, the GPFA's programs have been limited to Guldara, not far from the relative security of Kabul and flush with irrigation water. With a combined budget of less than $600,000 last year and this year, the group was able to provide fruit and poplar trees to 287 farm families.

While this first group of farmers is producing saplings that will expand the program's reach to other farmers, it will take many years at this rate to have a noticeable impact on the country as a whole. Comparing satellite imagery from 1977 and 2002, the most forested parts of the country have lost 52 percent of their oak and conifer forests. The UN estimates that 2.5 percent of Afghanistan remains forested; other estimates are even lower.