The trees that vanished: crisis in the Hindu Kush

The aromatic groves of cedar and pine that once covered Afghanistan are disappearing, cut down by smugglers. Justin Huggler reports from Kabul on a desperate struggle to avert ecological disaster
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The Independent Online

There is a beautiful scent that lingers in Afghanistan's cities, overpowering even the rotting garbage and open latrines. It is a sweet, aromatic scent, instantly recognisable. It is the smell of cedar wood burning.

An ecological disaster is unfolding in Afghanistan, under the noses of the international community who are trying to rebuild the country. Once, large areas of the country were covered with forests of cedar and pine, oak and fir but today there are just a few dwindling patches of forest left. Old photographs of Kabul tell their own story. Once, it was a green city of avenues lined with trees. Compare that to the rocky dustbowl familiar from television news pictures today. Today, just 2 per cent of Afghanistan is still forest, and conservationists are warning it is on its last legs.

It is not just a concern for ecologists. Wood is the main winter fuel in Afghanistan, and the experts agree it is fast running out. Huge areas of Afghanistan that were once forested have turned to desert. Foliage for livestock to feed on is disappearing, destroying the traditional lives of nomads who can no longer graze their flocks. Worse than that, the climate is changing. During the spring thaw, the trees used to hold back the snow on the mountainsides. Now, with no trees to hold it back, there are flash floods in the valleys.

It is not the fires and stoves of Kabul that are destroying Afghanistan's forests. Nobody would cut down trees as valuable as cedar just to use as firewood. The fuel is a by-product of the illegal trade in timber. When a tree is cut down, the trunk is smuggled across the border into Pakistan, and the smaller branches are cut off and kept as firewood.

The wood is smuggled out by donkey and mule across the same borders that the Taliban and foreign militants slip across to launch hit-and-run attacks on US and Afghan forces, before retreating back to the safety of the Pakistani border areas.

The men in the front line of the struggle to save the trees are Frank Lefebvre and Alain de Bures of Madera, a small French NGO that works exclusively in rural and remote Afghanistan. The deforestation of Afghanistan is a disaster that started to unfold relatively recently, according to Mr Lefebvre, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Soviet soldiers notoriously cut down Kabul's tallest tree, which had stood for hundreds of years, because they feared the mujahedin resistance could use it climb up and fire downwards on their advancing troops. In the years that followed, Afghanistan's forests were ravaged.

By a cruel irony, what is left of Afghanistan's forests are in some of the most dangerous parts of the country. The best preserved are in Nuristan and Konar, generally agreed to be the riskiest two provinces of Afghanistan in which to operate. In the recent parliamentary elections, they were the only two provinces where election monitors didn't go. Most Western NGOs won't set foot in them.

But they are dangerous for very different reasons. Konar, a region of isolated valleys against the Pakistani border, is a heartland of the Taliban. It has been suggested as a possible hiding place for bin Laden. In June, an American helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in Konar with 16 soldiers on board. It came down not far from some of the forest Madera is trying to save, says Mr de Bures.

But the province is very fractured. When four US Special Forces soldiers went missing in the province in June - the helicopter that was shot down was part of a rescue mission - three were killed by the Taliban. But the fourth was rescued by a shepherd whose village refused to hand him over to the Taliban. They are said to have issued a statement to the Taliban that, as long as women and children were alive to fight in their village, they would not hand over the wounded man to whom they had extended their protection according to the tribal customs of the region.

Nuristan, by contrast, is a place where even the Taliban were afraid to go. Made famous in the West by Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, it is a fabulously remote land of high peaks and notoriously independent people. The Nuristanis, a distinct ethnic group with their own language and customs, who often have blond hair and green eyes, do not welcome any strangers interfering in their mountain fastnesses, and it remains the most inaccessible and undeveloped province in Afghanistan. There are almost no roads; some villages are almost 48 hours on foot from the nearest road.

Madera is only able to operate in these difficult regions because of Mr de Bures, a short, grizzled man who has spent decades in Afghanistan. He knew the former King of Nuristan, when the province declared independence during the Soviet occupation. He knows the tribes in Konar so well that he can travel safely where others would be in great danger. He comes alive when the subject turns to his beloved Afghanistan, he can talk for hours about the tribal intricacies of the region.

Nuristan is Afghanistan's one safe reserve of forest, according to Mr de Bures. "The Nuristanis look after the forest because they really understand that if the forest disappears, they will disappear with it," he says.

But Konar is a perfect example of the timber-smuggling problem in Afghanistan. Since the Soviets left, 25 per cent of the Konar's entire area has been deforested. The problem is that Afghanistan's richest forests lie on the border with Pakistan, next to the traditional smuggling routes. A piece of timber worth 500 Pakistani rupees in Afghanistan is worth 9,000 in Karachi. "We've been trying to explain to the people in Konar that cutting down the forest like this is not sustainable," says Mr Lefebvre, "but they just don't see it that way. If they need wood, they cut down the first tree they see."

The French conservationists are trying to educate the people of Konar about a sustainable timber trade. In such a sensitive region, they can do little more: outright interference would not be tolerated. "The smugglers are not supporting the Taliban at all," says Mr de Bures, "but they're not happy with the presence of the Americans because they can't do the timber trade properly. The problem with the Americans is that they see everything in black and white."

Most of the smugglers come from the famous and powerful border tribes of Pashtuns, such as the Mohmand and Shinwaris. These tribes are ferociously independent and the Taliban stay away from their homelands. The conservationists too have to stay away - they are not welcome either.

The fighting in Konar has put Madera's staff in constant danger, not only from the Taliban, but from US forces as well. "One of our staff got arrested and held for 24 hours by the Americans because they thought he was one of the Taliban," says Mr Lefebvre. Most of the NGO's staff wear Afghan dress in order not to attract attention in Konar. That protects them from the Taliban, but can make them suspicious to US soldiers.

Madera were forced to abandon their compound in Konar after US forces moved in next door. The organisation's staff had lived there peacefully for many years but, after American forces moved in, suddenly there were rocket attacks in the area.

Mr de Bures blames the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), teams of Western military forces who have been sent to the provinces of Afghanistan to help with the reconstruction. "But in Konar they don't do anything for the people," he says. "They are just police for the Americans." He says the PRTs are only there as a military tactic, to win hearts and minds - but they are failing even to do that in the hills of Afghanistan.

There have been some benefits from the US presence in Konar, says Mr de Bures. Because the timber-smugglers use the same passes to cross the Pakistani border as the Taliban and foreign militants, US forces are now patrolling the entire border and stopping timber smugglers as well as insurgents.

Better still, Mr de Bures says, the new Governor of Konar province, Asadullah Waffa, has clamped down hard on the timber-smuggling and recently brought it to a virtual standstill.

The illegal timber trade is already having a serious effect on the Afghan economy. Afghans still use wood where plastic or metal would be cheaper alternatives in the West. Door frames and window frames are wood, made to measure in the timber yards that dot every Afghan town. But the wood has become extremely expensive because so much is being diverted to Pakistan. A basic window frame - a flimsy affair with no ornamentation - costs $40 (£20), which is serious money in a country as poor as Afghanistan.

The government is becoming increasingly concerned about the fuel situation. Temperatures in Kabul reached as low as minus 30C last winter, and most Afghans rely on wood as their only heating fuel. That is no longer sustainable, according to Ehsan Zia, the deputy minister at the Rural Redevelopment and Rehabilitation Ministry. "We have to find some alternative fuel," says Mr Zia. "We have to find some way of getting gas into Afghanistan for heating fuel."

It is ironic that before the 2001 war the US was lobbying hard for a pipeline across Afghanistan for gas from Turkmenistan but today Afghanistan is in serious need of gas.

"Even in Nuristan, you can see the difference," says Mr de Bures. "The ground used to be so thick with fallen branches that it was hard to walk. But now all the fallen branches have been scavenged. Those fallen branches were vital to protect the soil," says Mr de Bures.

With most of Afghanistan's forests already gone, the question looms: is the damage reversible? "To be honest with you, I don't know if it's reversible," says Mr Lefebvre. "We're just trying to save what's left."