Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Orchards Go to Ruin in Afghan Province

Valuable tree plantations cleared or left to run wild despite their commercial potential.
By Ahmad Shah

At least half the once-thriving fruit and nut orchards in Khost in southeast Afghanistan have been destroyed, and the rest have fallen into disuse through neglect, according to residents of the province.

Fruit and nut plantations planted during the three-decade-long rule of Afghanistan’s last king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, survived until the civil war of the early 1990s. Thereafter, the disintegration of any kind of organised government led to years of neglect of these large-scale state ventures.

Many of the orchards have grown into wild forest, where people go to cut down trees for firewood or graze livestock.

Northeast of Khost city, the one-square-kilometre Melma Kot plantation is now a tangle of untended trees.

Amir Shah Kargar, an elderly man who is one of a few men still employed to care for the trees as far as they can, recalls a time when the plantation was commercially productive.

“We used to take a lot of fruit and vegetables to the market in Khost every day,” he said. “The government used to earn a lot of revenue from this place, but now it doesn’t make even a couple of dollars out of it, because it’s a forest and the trees are wild.”

Kargar’s colleague Zahed said the tiny staff lacked the resources or incentives to maintain the orchard.

“We are only gardeners in name,” he said. “We just pass our days here. Two or three gardeners can’t do anything. We have no equipment or seeds. Our wages don’t get paid on time. We are fed up. If there was water and equipment and our problems were solved, we’d come and work with enthusiasm. Now we have nothing.”

Rahim Shah, who lives near the Melma Kot forest, added, “Local residents graze their livestock in the plantation every day. Most people cut down trees, either openly or in secret, to use as firewood.”

He said concerned residents had complained to the authorities on a number of occasions, but nothing had been done to restore or protect the area.

“Other people turn deserts into gardens, but we turn gardens into deserts,” he said.

Elsewhere in Khost, many other plantations have also deteriorated. Three of them, known as Balud, Wazir and “Farm”, have simply run wild with only a handful of staff to care for them.

Others have been taken over and the land used for various purposes.

The Sahra almond orchard was flattened to create an airbase for United States military, and is now occupied by the Afghan National Army.

The Central Plantation used to have tens of thousands of apple, cherry, apricot and other fruit trees, as well as a nursery that supplied saplings to other orchards. But some of it has been cleared to build offices for foreign organisations and private homes for agriculture department officials.

Many other orchards have simply been razed to free up the land. The Sagi plantation in the Tani district has lost its 110,000 almond trees, as have the smaller Badam orchard of mixed almond and apricot trees, and others in the Mandozai and Ismail Khel districts.

Many regret the decline of this once lucrative sector. As well as supplying Afghan consumers with fresh produce, orchards are a source of dried fruit and nuts, a major export item.

“If our orchards are rehabilitated, saplings and fruit from the orchards will be sold all over Afghanistan, and earn good revenue for the government budget,” Mir Afzal, head of forestry at Khost’s agriculture department, told IWPR.

The head of the provincial agriculture department, Naqibullah, said he lacked the staff and funds just to maintain the plantations, let alone revive them as commercial ventures.

He noted that his department would need tractors and other heavy equipment to replace irrigation networks that had fallen into ruin, as well as to clear the overgrown forests.

“We would need from 300,000 to one million dollars for each orchard, depending on its area,” he said. “There is no one who can provide that sum.”

Instead of the current allocation of up to seven employees per orchard, he said 50 to 70 workers were needed for each one.

A newsletter from the provincial governor’s office notes that Agriculture Minister Asef Rahimi promised to prioritise agriculture in Khost at a meeting with local and national lawmakers.

Naqibullah said the agriculture ministry made the same promises every year, but no help had ever been forthcoming.

“Agricultural land and some orchards have been taken over by powerful individuals, government officials, and others here, and we can’t take any action against them,” he said.

The impasse leaves orchard workers like Hakim Khan, the only employee in a large plantation in Khost, quietly despondent.

“I am the only gardener for the orchard,” said Hakem Khan, 50. “If I walked all day, I couldn’t get from one side to the other. We have no equipment to work with, and there is no flowing water in the orchard. The trees have dried up and I feel sorry for them…. My heart bleeds when I look at the trees in the orchard. I’m reluctant to go to the orchard because I feel pain.” 

Ahmad Shah is an IWPR-trained reporter in Khost.

ARR Issue 488