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.
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.
Aside from a threat to the livelihoods of thousands of Afghans who work in the forest industry, deforestation hurts farmers by drawing down the water table and eroding soil. Habitats for animals and plants disappear, further straining food sources. Hills around villages grow unstable, contributing this spring to deadly mudslides.
"When you start destroying forests, you start destroying aquifer," says Robin Rose, associate professor for forest regeneration at Oregon State University. "You actually begin the slow desertification, especially in that part of the world, of whole hillsides."
In his recent book, "Collapse," anthropologist Jared Diamond catalogues the dangers of environmental mismanagement throughout history. Cutting down trees contributed to the downfall of a number of societies, including settlements on Easter Island and Greenland. Those who cut down the last trees there, Mr. Diamond suggests, were driven by short-term pressures for food, fuel, and money - the same pressures felt in Afghanistan today.
Recognizing that forests won't thrive if Afghans can't reap short-term benefits, the GPFA has spent several years perfecting business models that work for farmers. Having completed much of the test phases for their programs, the group is now ready to target large donors.
For Professor Rose at Oregon State, many reforestation projects led by NGOs mean well, but spend too much time and money on "evaluations, reports, and task forces." Reforestation, he says, requires some know-how and modest sums of money.
But long-term planning is critical to any effort, says Hazrat Hussein Khawria, head of forestry in Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture. And that requirement makes it difficult for political leaders to focus on it.
"Politicians are looking for immediate results for the people," Mr. Khawria says. "In forests, we have to wait for five years at least. But in five years, maybe the politician's cycle is finished." He argues that it is preferable to have programs that try to cover less area but continue over a longer span of time. With no budget, however, his department cannot initiate planting projects. Instead, he has been working on formulating a new land-use policy that he says will help curb illegal logging - a major problem, especially along the border with Pakistan. The ministry is pushing for a "forest management" model. Local people would receive limited rights to cut trees, giving them a stake in managing the forests.
"We are trying to go to the people to get this help in protecting the forests. The government can't do it," says Khawria.
The government, with help from the United States, has also formed an Afghan Conservation Corps (ACC), reminiscent of the New Deal's CCC in the US. The ACC doubles as a jobs and forest-redevelopment program. So far, $925,000 has been spent, 230,000 saplings planted, and another 1.5 million saplings will be grown from seed.
Even these small efforts have made an impact. The green and lush Guldara provides hope that one day Afghanistan can once again be renowned for its orchards and natural beauty.