ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- Afghan lawmakers have begun an investigation into illegal logging in the country’s rapidly disappearing forests.
A delegation comprising members of Mishrano Jirga, or the upper house of the Afghan Parliament, are visiting the eastern province of Kunar, where the once-abundant pine and oak forests are now threatened with extinction by illegal logging.
“All six of us senators, representing different [Afghan] provinces, are here to collect facts,” Senator Muhammad Hashim Alekozai told a gathering of notables in Kunar’s provincial capital, Asadabad, on January 9. “We are only interested in finding out the reality here. Our emphasis will be on finding out what the people of Kunar want.”
The delegation will report their findings to the Afghan Senate, which will pass on its recommendations to the government.
“The forests are a national resource for all of Afghanistan, and we need to make sure they are protected,” Fazlil Hadi Muslimyar, chairman of the upper house, told a session on January 8.
Mohmmad Tayab Atta, Kunar’s representative in the Senate, called on Kabul to treat illegal loggers as anti-state insurgents.
“I am calling on the Afghan president [Ashraf Ghani] to treat those destroying our forests similar to the members of Daesh (eds: local name for Islamic State militants),” he said. “Their houses should be targeted in air strikes.”
With broadleaf evergreen oaks in low elevation plains and pines in high elevations, mountainous Kunar was once covered with forests.
But the illegal timber trade, particularly in precious deodar cedar timber, has flourished since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
During the past four decades, Kunar mostly remained a contested backwater where revenues from illegal logging and timber bankrolled insurgent groups.
The region’s fate didn’t change after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. As insurgents controlled some remote valleys, local residents say successive provincial administrations aided or exploited the illegal timber trade to get rich.
Hijran, a local activist who goes by one name only, says Kabul needs to implement national laws that guarantee the protection of forests and natural habitats.
“We have laws, but we need to figure out how to implement them,” he said.
Together with neighboring Nuristan and the southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, Kunar still has rapidly declining pine and oak forests. Northern Badghis Province is home to patches of pistachio forests.
Kunar, however, is apparently divided over the issue. On January 8, two rival demonstrations displayed the division.
Scores of carpenters and timber traders protested against the provincial police chief for preventing them from hauling furniture from the province. They claimed that a few months ago the Afghan cabinet’s economic commission allowed them to take furniture out of Kunar without paying any taxes. They said the commission’s decision was signed by Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
But a rival demonstration in Asadabad demanded a strict ban on logging and transportation of timber from the region.
Activist Naseerullah Rakhteen said powerful timber traders are still pushing for unfettered logging in the region.
“All these people want is to continue [illegal] logging and then transport the timber in the name of manufacturing and trading furniture,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
In a statement apparently aimed at ending the controversy, Abdullah said that while the government has allowed furniture to be taken out of Kunar, no one is allowed to harvest forests for making furniture.
“Nobody is allowed to engage in logging or smuggling timber,” a January 8 statement quoted Abdullah as saying.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Kunar.