Log exports sap Afghan rebuilding

Kabul needs wood, but loggers continue to smuggle valuable timber to Pakistan

In his lumberyard, Amir Rahman points at beams of pine as long as an 18-wheeler and beams of oak as thick as pillars at the Acropolis in Athens.

"There are trees three times that size still out there in the mountains," he says. "I don't think these trees will run out, God willing, for at least another 100 years."

But the hills around his lumberyard tell another story. A hundred years ago, these foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains were covered in trees – a lush, forested Shangri-la in a desert land. Today, most of the mountains in Konar Province are bare, covered only in dust, cinder, and chunks of slate. And the few remote peaks, where trees are still visible, could soon meet a similar fate.

Saving the forests ranks as a relatively low priority in a country destroyed by 23 years of war, faced with the influx of 1.3 million refugees, and beset by poverty and sporadic fighting. So when the central government of President Hamid Karzai this year placed a ban on timber cutting and exporting to neighboring Pakistan, it was less out of concern for preserving natural resources, and more out of a need to save a depleting supply of wood for Afghans who are rebuilding.

"This province and this country are destroyed, so we need timber for making doors, windows, roof beams," says Haji Ali Rahman, acting governor of Konar Province. "So we can't export any of our logs anywhere else."

Afghanistan's largest remaining forests are in Konar Province. But with no agency dedicated to looking after the forests, the province is having trouble enforcing the ban.

At the sprawling timber market of Asadabad, called Chaqasaray, merchants complain bitterly about corruption in the form of bribes at checkpoints along Afghan roads. As a result, many timber merchants have continued to send their logs to Pakistan, where the bribes are fewer and timber sells at a higher price.

"We pay [bribes] 23 times on the road from Konar to Jalalabad, and we pay [bribes] 200 times on the road to Kabul," says Waliullah, a timber merchant.

Border policemen and customs officials, most of whom haven't been paid in six months, are loathe to give up bribes from timber merchants to let their logging trucks pass through the Afghan border into Pakistan.

"In this city, there's no need to hide anything you do. If you use just a little money, everybody will be blind," the Konar governor says.

Many merchants say the pace of cutting has actually increased since the ban. "The cutting is still going on, there are huge operations run by Pakistan," says Mohammad Malang, a timber merchant.

Waliullah agrees. "It is banned only for poor people to cut trees, but if you have money, you can do whatever you want," he says. "Timber, heroin, gems, guns, these smugglers take all of this across the border openly, and the police will never tell you because they are helping the smugglers."

Mr. Malang says that frankly he would like to get out of the timber business, for the sake of the environment. It's an assertion that causes other timber merchants to chortle and shout him down.

"For the sake of the environment, this business should be banned," says Malang. "This wealth belongs to our orphans and widows, the people of Afghanistan. But the problem is that Pakistan is sending in people to cut logs and sending it back to Pakistan, and the pickpocket gunmen, the soldiers on the border, are helping them."

For their part, border security officials say they are making progress against illegal Pakistani logging companies moving into Afghanistan. In particular, they point to the arrest two weeks ago of some 40 Pakistanis caught logging inside Afghanistan. The 40 Pakistanis have been sent to Kabul to face trial.

But this strong action has brought a fierce reaction. Border security officials now say there are rumors that Pakistani tribal leaders have called for the kidnapping of 40 Afghan soldiers as a bargaining chip to force the return of the 40 Pakistanis. And many Afghan border soldiers wonder if all the danger is worthwhile, particularly since they haven't been paid.

"God willing, we are trying our best, but we haven't even heard the word called 'salary,' " says Wazir Mohammad Sadiq, deputy chief of checkpoints for the Border Security Force of Konar Province. "We pay our food from our own pockets, that's why we are not so active. But if we were paid, we would be twice as active."

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