Rug Industry Floored By Imports

A flood of cheap Iranian-made carpets is putting many poor Afghan craftsmen out of business.

Rug Industry Floored By Imports

A flood of cheap Iranian-made carpets is putting many poor Afghan craftsmen out of business.

Wednesday, 2 March, 2005

They’re easier to clean, don’t get eaten by moths, and above all, they’re cheap. But synthetic carpets imported from Iran are hurting one of Afghanistan’s biggest traditional industries.

The market for handmade woollen Afghan rugs has been hit hard by the imports. As a result, prices have fallen and some producers have been forced out of business.

The carpets woven in the northern parts of Afghanistan, especially in Kundoz province, have long been popular in domestic and international markets because of their colour, design and durability.

They are usually made of marino wool and natural dyes. A good Afghan rug can easily last 200 years, and many actually improve with age, carpet dealers say.

But they admit that Iranian imports are tough competition, mostly because of their price. A quality Afghan carpet measuring two metres by three metres costs 250 to 400 US dollars, while a synthetic Iranian one costs about a quarter of that.

Iranian carpets are cheaper because of the synthetic materials and because they are often made by machine looms.

Mohammad Nasim, who was carpet shopping in Kabul, said the price is too attractive to ignore. “Ours are better quality, but you can buy five Iranian carpets for the price of one Afghan one,” he said.

In an effort to protect the Afghan industry, the government recently imposed a ban on the import of Iranian carpets other than factory-produced rolls of wall-to-wall carpeting.

The interior ministry is slated to take over border control soon, and General Alhaj Sultan Quraishi, the director of a department responsible for countering smuggling, said he’s confident the imports can be stopped.

Afghan’s porous borders and corruption among customs officials may make this difficult to enforce, however.

The domestic carpet industry, which dates back 2,500 years, is based in northern parts of Afghanistan such as Chahar Dara, Qala-e-Zal, Imam Sahib and Dasht-e-Archi, which have a good climate for raising sheep that provide the wool. But locals say they are suffering as a result of the downturn in the market.

For instance, Sajida, 55, has been weaving carpets since she was a child. But she told IWPR that the price for her skilled labour has fallen by around a third to just 600 Pakistani rupees (10 dollars) for weaving just one metre.

In regions that are heavily dependent on carpet weaving, locals told IWPR that at least one out of five family members have had to change professions to earn enough money.

Ashraf, another carpet weaver, complained that the market doesn’t recognise the long hours and skill that go into his work. It takes three workers 40 to 50 days to make a 3-metre by 2-metre carpet, he said.

While the price is a primary consideration, Iranian carpets have other advantages. Since Afghan rugs are made of natural wool, they’re more susceptible to moths. However, one thing in their favour is that they last longer.

Which is perhaps why westerners say they still prefer Afghan carpets. One shopper, a US soldier, told IWPR that they remain very good value for their price.

Payamberqol Doghan, president of the Union of Importing and Exporting Afghan Carpets, said, “In 1980, we were exporting carpets to 25 countries of the world. Our income from carpets was estimated at 9-10 million dollars. By 1985, we exported at the rate of 65,000 square meters per month and the income had reached 14 million dollars.”

After the civil war broke out in 1992, exports were limited to Pakistan – which soon became the centre of the Afghan carpet industry, as so many people fled there. The business has become so vital to Pakistan that it is offering traders generous subsidies to stay in the country.

Kabul would like the traders to return but are aware that the industry will continue to struggle because foreign buyers are nervous about the security situation and the absence of active banking system.

Despite the losses, 40 per cent of the employment of Kundoz, Baghlan, Takhar, Balkh, Badghees, Bamyan and Herat provinces is in the carpet weaving industry, Doghan said.

Meanwhile, some non-governmental organisations have begun training more workers in the trade.

Mujahidullah, president of Weaving Handicrafts of Coordination Humanitarian Assistance, said his organisation is paying for courses in carpet weaving for 400 students in Kundoz, Herat, Badghees and Kabul. He said there was still enough international interest in the Afghan rugs to support the new weavers.

Sayed Maroof Sadat is an independent journalist in Kabul.

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