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Cheap Imports And Declining Investments Imperil Afghan Crafts

A coppersmith in Badakhshan
A coppersmith in Badakhshan

The sound of a hammer forging copper formed a soundtrack to Faizabad's handicraft markets 50 years ago, when hundreds of coppersmiths sold plates, pots, and copper ornaments in the bustling Afghan Silk Road town.

Now the once-thriving crafts industry in the northwestern Badakhshan province is on the verge of collapse due to the failure of past governments to invest in the sector and the influx of cheaper products from China and Pakistan, according to the chief government economist in the province.

"Our forefathers made copper dishware, and we ate from them and loved them," said Abdul Ghafoor Farogh, director of economic affairs in Badakhshan. "Now the sons have forgotten the old craft, and the copper dishes have been replaced with Chinese and Pakistani imports."

Farogh says reviving the industry is "at the top of the economic agenda" and the government is working with relevant local partner organizations to inject new energy into handicrafts. Meanwhile, new distribution channels are being sought and craftsmen are being supported, according to Farogh.

"We are looking to resuscitate such local industries," he says. "We have skilled, hardworking labor with plenty of raw materials in Badakhshan province, we only have to support them. We reached a consensus about the coppersmith industry as one of the top prioritized local industries that must be revived with help from other relevant organizations."

The head of the local crafts association in Badakhshan, Naimatullah Ghanizada, says the government has done little to revive the sector and the worsening security situation has only scared away other stakeholders.

"We have formed associations of different craftsmen in each district and have handed our suggestions for assistance to donor organizations involved with the revival of local industries," Ghanizada said. "But unfortunately the latest instabilities have disheartened donor organizations."

Officials, however, point to specific recent programs that have diversified artisanship in the province.

"Although the government has not paid due attention to crafts made by Afghan men, considerable attention has been paid to handicrafts produced by Afghan women. We now have 421 women and 25 disabled men involved in producing handicrafts like tablecloths and woven jackets,” says Safiullah Etemadi, spokesman for the Department of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled in Badakhshan.

Abdul Qudoos a coppersmith in Badakhashan
Abdul Qudoos a coppersmith in Badakhashan

But even Etemadi concedes that budgetary constraints prevent the government from conducting an adequate assessment of needs "to recommend revival steps for these local crafts industries."

The decline of the coppersmith industry is symptomatic of a broader economic malaise in the handicraft sector in Faizabad. Goldsmithery, blacksmithery, traditional architecture, embroidery, shoemaking, and pottery, as well as the various local forms of weaving -- burlap, Kilim, Chakman, and Alcha – have all suffered.

Experts say preserving these traditional crafts and industries is vital to any future local prosperity, primarily because the province's mountainous terrain means the economy has traditionally relied on industry, not agriculture.

Ghulam Mohammad Atashpour, an economist based in Badakhshan, believes the old crafts will struggle to survive and compete with cheaper, mass-produced imports.

"With the arrival of modern machinery, handmade production lost its place and is extinct," Atashpour said. "Handmade products are time-consuming and hard to produce," he adds, arguing that the government should invest into more niche products like cashmere, which still has a strong market.

Abdul Qadoos, a coppersmith in his 60s in Faizabad, is proof that the craft is not yet extinct.

Qadoos inherited his profession from his father and has worked in the trade for the past 50 years. "From the stretch of Pamir to the gates of the valleys, people would flock to buy our products. We had plenty of work, and the income was good," Qadoos said.

Now that the market is "flooded with cheap Chinese plastic dishes," Qadoos struggles to make a living. His son, Abdul Nasir, is also a trained coppersmith, although he prefers to work as a security guard for $400 per month.

"It takes four days of work to finish a copper teapot, but it takes a month to sell it," Nasir said. I can't even make $5 a day selling copper."

Nasir says neither he nor his father has received any government support and that without a concerted effort from local authorities to subsidize coppersmithery, it is unlikely either of them will wield a hammer for much longer.