Canadians reforesting Afghanistan; Experts may be part of a plan to reverse denudation
The Daily Observer (Canada)
April 11, 2008
When people hear any mention of Afghanistan, the image that comes to mind is a landlocked country of forbidding mountains, arid deserts and not much else. Little do they know that this former tourist mecca was once covered with forests of cedar, pine, fir and oak.
After three decades of war, there are a few patches of forest left. In a dire prediction, environmentalists recently warned Afghanistan’s forests will disappear within the next 30 years.
Now, Ontario forestry workers hope to reverse Afghanistan’s fortunes by helping the world’s sixth poorest nation reforest itself. The Canadian Institute of Forestry has drafted a series of proposals aimed at designing and delivering an ambitious program of afforestation. With Canada sending federal aid workers, police officers and diplomats to reinforce our military mission there, the institute said it’s appropriate to get some forestry experts on the ground to help the Afghan people regain a valuable resource.
“Forestry is something that fits our national profile,” says Neil Stocker, a boreal silviculturist with the Ministry of Natural Resources. “We would be exercising something in which we have world class recognition.”
Mr. Stocker got to see the plight of Afghanistan’s horticultural decline for himself as a soldier serving in Kandahar from August 2006 to February 2007. A captain in the Canadian Forces Reserves, he deployed as a projects officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City.
As he sees it, the problem stems from years of war and neglect. As of 2005, there were some 867,000 hectares of forests and wooded areas. This was down from 1.3 million hectares in 1990. The rate of forest reduction translates to about 29,500 hectares a year over 15 years. At that rate, the last hectare will be harvested by 2035. Despite this, wood consumption has increased. Between 1993 and 2001, annual fuel wood consumption jumped from 2.4 million cubic metres to 3.2 million cubic metres.
Afghanistan’s forestry decline can be traced to the Soviet invasion of 1979. It is said that when Russian forces marched into the capital of Kabul, soldiers cut down the city’s largest tree, which had stood for hundreds of years, to prevent it from being used as a sniper’s nest by the mujahedeen.
When civil war broke out after the Soviet occupation, the Afghan Department of Forestry was one of the first to be dismantled. It had conducted forest management programs including keeping inventory of plantations and stocks and the protection of rare species. However, in the absence of central authority, people started cutting down and taking what they wanted. No replanting was subsequently done. Eventually, warlords took control of the forests and harvested them for their own benefit. In addition, Afghanistan’s nomadic tribes, known as the Kuchi, caused extreme overgrazing.
“The result has been denudation of the woodlands, severely damaged regeneration and accelerated desertification,” explained Mr. Stocker. “What’s left of the forests and timberlands are divided into broadleaved, mixed and coniferous forests and shrub lands.”
While in Kandahar, Mr. Stocker saw pistachio and almond trees in small orchards or standing alone. Other trees, such as pines and eucalyptus, have survived as windbreaks and to protect riverbanks during periods of flash flooding. However, the conditions of these trees are poor at best, he noted.
What the institute envisions is sending a technical team into Kandahar, perhaps as part of the PRT, to work with the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture on joint projects that would see the start-up of tree plantations. They could even hire local workers and contract through Afghan companies to facilitate these projects, Mr. Stocker added.
“We want buy-in from the Afghan people,” he said. “If we don’t get their support, then it will be doomed.”
The group has made submissions to the Department of National Defence, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the blue ribbon panel headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley which recently made recommendations on Canada’s future role in Afghanistan. Defence Minister Peter McKay did respond, telling the institute it was a worthwhile project. However, any initiative will need financial and logistical support primarily from the federal government, Mr. Stocker added.
A comprehensive, large-scale afforestation program can create skilled jobs in silviculture and tree nurseries, reduce the level of poverty, re-establish a sustainable forest products industry and provide a range of export commodities. There are some challenges, however, ranging from insecurity in rural areas and lack of expertise to the unwillingness of international agencies to commit resources and competition from a lucrative drug trade.
While some may be skeptical that anything as large as a pine or cedar tree can grow in Kandahar, Mr. Stocker said there is potential in the southern Afghan province. For example, irrigation can be implemented because water exists within a depth of 10 metres. When he was in the Panwayi District west of Kandahar City, he saw surface-mounted, gas and diesel powered agricultural water pumps in operation.
“If protected from drought, trees can develop and grow at impressive rates. Although the environment appears to be dry and very dusty, moisture appears adequate in supply and demand,” he added.
“We can see forests in Kandahar once more.”