Charity saplings will bear fruit in Afghanistan stripped of trees
Tree-planting in Afghanistan can seem like a quixotic idea in a country racked by unrest and grinding poverty.
Faced with economic hardship since the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, some Afghans have turned to cutting down trees to save money.
“If they have an apple tree, they still have to pass through the winter. If they don’t have money to buy food, they will be forced to first cut their own tree. Poverty has a direct impact on trees,” Guru Naik, deputy director at the Afghanistan Resilience Consortium, a UN-backed aid organisation, said.
While short-term needs have led to some felling, the consortium has worked with the charity Afghanaid to plant hundreds of thousands of trees in recent years.
Afghanaid is one of three charities being supported by The Times and Sunday Times Christmas Appeal.
Forests cover less than 2 per cent of Afghanistan’s land. After years of conflict and exploitation by timber mafia and smugglers many of its conifers have been lost.
Naik and his colleagues are determined to turn the situation around, to provide people with livelihoods, reduce the risk of flooding and improve the state of the soil. In the past three years, they have planted more than 570,640 trees across Afghanistan.
“Most of the mountains are completely degraded. There are no trees,” Naik said. His consortium, founded in 2014, has been planting poplars in mountainous areas, to reduce the flow of water down slopes that causes flash floods and threatens people downhill.
They also dig terraces to hold water on the mountainsides, and block gullies with bags of soil.
Poplar is a species usually welcomed by local people as it is often used for timber, including building houses.
On the flat, which is usually privately-owned land, the approach has been to plant fruit trees that can help people to earn a living. “Afghanistan has apple, peach, pear, and they grow very well in the climate. Those trees can be planted fairly easily,” said Naik. Historically, the country is also known for pistachio and almond trees.
The trees can provide a significant income via their timber and fruit. On one jerib, a unit of about half an acre, people can make around £930 a year from apple trees. For almonds the figure rises to about £1,400 and pomegranate nearly £1,600, according to Naik.
The consortium does not only plant trees, but also helps to make them more productive. They worked with one farmer, who lived alone, to improve his land by building a series of terraces, which turned around a hundred unproductive apple trees. “Suddenly they started giving him good fruit,” Naik said. As a result, the farmer fenced them, and built a small house near the trees where he now lives to take care of them.
Improving the health of trees and planting more is not easy given the instability in Afghanistan. Providing a steady supply of water can prove a headache. Saplings require consistent watering in their first years. In 2020, many people were internally displaced by the political crisis. During their absence, many trees, especially on public land, were not irrigated and died. “That was our biggest challenge,” Naik said.
When heavy fighting started around January 2021, it took a while for fieldwork to be affected. But in August that year, “everything changed” when the Afghan government collapsed in Kabul and the Taliban took over. “We had to be evacuated,” Naik said.
Afghanaid’s tree-planting and land improvement schemes restarted before being temporarily suspended once more following a decree announced by the Taliban on Christmas Eve,which banned women from working for non-government organisations.
While its operations are suspended, the generous donations we have already received as part of The Times and Sunday Times appeal will be held securely in its UK bank accounts.
When the charity feels able to restart operations, the appeal funds will once again be effectively mobilised and put to use supporting humanitarian and development work in Afghanistan.