What will environmental conservation look like under Taliban rule?

Sustainable Leaders | Asia

By Julia Riopelle, Co-Editor in Chief

Published September 25th, 2021

‘Plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of earth and the benefit of almighty Allah's creations.’

Hibatullah Akhundzada, who serves as the Head of the Emirate State (and the Taliban political leader), calls for civilians and fighters to plant trees, as ‘tree plantation plays an important role in environmental protection, economic development and beautification of earth.’

This was said in 2017, prior to when the Taliban had gained complete control of Afghanistan on August 15th, 2021. Do the Taliban, a militant group notorious for its brutality and violation of human rights, really care about conserving the country’s environment?

Afghans join the Afghan defence and security forces during a gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan (taken June 23, 2021). | 李 季霖 / Flickr

At the time of Akhundzada’s statement, the Afghan Government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, argued that this was the Taliban's attempt to trick people into believing that they have changed since their inhumane rule between 1996 to 2001.

After the US and allied invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001, an analysis was conducted on the state of Afghanistan’s environment. It was found that both rural and urban landscapes had been neglected by the Taliban. Much of the country’s land had become dry and barren, with Afghanistan experiencing the disappearance of its wetlands, widespread soil erosion and droughts that last years.

However, wildlife and natural resources will always be a neglected casualty of warfare. The physical impacts of war destroys cities and alters landscapes, which in turn further destabilize the country’s economy, agricultural sector, irrigation systems and resource management.

‘Some urban areas only had 12% of their residents have access to safe drinking water.’

Afghanistan is also said to be one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, as it is already suffering from limited access to drinking water, food insecurity, internally displaced people and more. In 2003, some urban areas only had 12% of their residents have access to safe drinking water. Furthermore, although Afghanistan has made both economic and social strides in US and ally controlled areas in the last 20 years, many of these are threatened to be reversed with the Taliban back in power.

In the last Taliban rule of 1996 to 2001, girls and women were not allowed to attend education or university, with the exception of some professions such as nursing. And whilst for now the Taliban has only put in place the segregation of genders in university, women may soon experience further rights revoked. It has been highlighted in multiple cases worldwide that educating women, and acknowledging gender equality, is a key factor in the stability of countries and their economies.

Afghan scientists, both male and female, are worrying for their lives under Taliban rule. The Taliban, currently an unrecognised Emirate State, is religiously driven, basing its laws on the Islamic Sharia Laws. However, as with many other religions, science is not always in agreement with these beliefs, thus making many university scholars uneasy. If environmental and climate scientists, particularly female scientists, are unable to practice their studies, the country may lose its conservation advocates.

The Taliban have ordered female university students to wear an abaya robe and a niqab (covers most of the face). Girls have been prohibited by the Taliban to attend secondary school. All women and girls can only leave the house with a male (mostly blood-related) guardian. | Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion / Flickr

How did Afghanistan’s forests hold up under Taliban control?

In a conversation with Newsweek, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban's Cultural Commission, stated: ‘We believe the world has a unique opportunity of rapprochement and coming together to tackle the challenges not only facing us but the entire humanity. These challenges ranging from world security and climate change need the collective efforts of all, and cannot be achieved if we exclude or ignore an entire people who have been devastated by imposed wars for the past four decades.’

Are the Taliban being genuine, or is this another ploy for public support as ex-President Ashraf Ghani claimed? A study found that deforestation in Afghanistan was more associated with times of war, than times where a single regime was in control.

After the Taliban first came into full power in 1996, timber trade, which in the past had been a domestic affair, was largely internationalised. Local communities were prohibited from gaining any profit from the market. A paper by Bader et al. (2013) also found that many suspected that ‘the Taliban was clearing large areas of forest in the Kunar Province, in the east of Afghanistan where the Taliban still ruled, in order to generate quick influxes of hard currency.’

‘The Taliban was clearing large areas of forest in order to generate quick influxes of hard currency.’

Once the Taliban was fully toppled in 2002, the establishment of a democratic government led to extrapolated urbanisation, forest clearing for new settlements and intensive livestock rearing. After the country was somewhat rebuilt from the beginning of the war and the Taliban rule, then-President Hamid Karzai passed a legislation that banned illegal logging and the felling of trees in protected forests.

Although, due to ties with Pakistan, who coordinated the Taliban-led timber trades, the militant group was able to continue to consolidate the industry in their stronghold areas with the ban in place—further made possible due to corrupt Afghan government and security officials (Bader et al., 2013). Despite past pledges to protect Afghanistan’s natural resources, the group would fell hundreds of pine trees daily and sell them via an intricate export network on the black market.

The aim of liquidating these forests was to generate enough revenue for soldiers, weapons and other resources in the anticipation of future fighting. A study observing the change in tree cover in the Kunar Province found that clear cuts of the forest each exceeded 150 hectares, with some reaching up to 500 hectares. Stockpiles of various woods, which averaged between 10 to 40 metres-cubed in volume, could reach up to $9,000 to $36,000 in value.

US army battalion searches Kunar Valley for Taliban. Kunar Province is where much of the illegal logging for the Taliban’s timber trade took place. | The U.S. Army

Mining for riches: The Taliban is sitting on a mountain of Afghan minerals

You may have read in the August headlines that ‘the Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of mineral wealth.’ In 2010, US forces and geologists discovered that the country is saturated in minerals, both common and rare, including gold, copper, iron and lithium.

In a recent conversation between CNN and Mosin Khan, former Middle East and Central Asia director at the International Monetary Fund, Khan estimated that of the $1 billion generated by minerals in Afghanistan per year, 30% to 40% is extracted by the Taliban and other warlords via corruption. The Taliban has also been linked to a lot of illegal mining, particularly in the mountainous regions the Afghan Government hadn’t been able to secure.

A survey found 44 Taliban controlled illegal mines in the Takhar province alone, with further coal and gold mines in Namak Aab, Chaal, Chah Aab and Khwaja Ghar district. According to Pajhwok Afghan News, the Taliban earn $100,000 daily from their Takhar mines—funds which were financing their war in order to reoccupy the country.

‘30% to 40% [of Afghanistan’s minerals] are extracted by the Taliban and other warlords via corruption.’

Now, in post-war times, the Taliban Islamic Emirate State hopes to expand this industry in order to further develop the country’s economy. However, mining for rare earth minerals and lithium, a rare and important component in electric batteries, comes at an environmental cost.

As with other mining, it leads to much soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, soil and water contamination—and Afghanistan already suffers from significant water shortages. Often large areas of forests also need to be cleared, in order to access mines and create effective transport systems to export the valuable minerals.

Lithium, in particular, requires toxic chemicals to process, and any release of such chemicals via leaching, spills or air emissions harm the surrounding biodiversity. Both micro and macroorganism communities, which live around the coal mines, can be affected by varying mineral concentrations and the pH of their environment; this may lead to decreasing primary ecosystem productivity, and can be felt throughout all trophic levels.

Opium field in Afghanistan. | United Nations Photo / Flickr

From opium to biodiesel: a chance for the Taliban to act on their environmental pledge

During a drought in 2000, Mohammed Omar, the Head of the Taliban Islamic Emirate State during their first rule (1997 to 2001), banned all cultivation of opium in order to gain international recognition. Although opium trade decreased by 99%, up to 60% of farmers stockpiled their harvests. The ban resulted in the prices of opium to rise exponentially, which allowed the Taliban to make huge profits off their stockpiles.

However, as opium trade was one of its major sources of income, the ban led to Afghanistan’s economic ruin. Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, opium cultivation turned out to actually be concentrated in Taliban-controlled areas. According to the BBC, the Helmand region of Afghanistan contained more than 20,000 hectares of poppy fields.

By taxing the harvest of opium farmers by 10%, the Taliban was able to continue to finance their insurgency. The group would also traffic the drug, making an annual profit of $100 to $400 million.

'Poppy seeds can be used to meet the country’s energy demand, in the form of biodiesel.'

Now that the Taliban is back in control, Hibatullah Akhundzada vouches to once again ban opium cultivation, in order to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a narcotic state. However, banning opium leads to the loss of millions of farmers' income, which can lead to the crippling of Afghanistan’s economy and a repeat of history.

Instead of banning poppy seed cultivation, perhaps this could be an opportunity for the Taliban to gain some recognition to do ‘better’—at least in terms of the environment (without condoning their inhumane social policies). Poppy seeds, in the form of biodiesel, could be used to meet the country’s energy demand.

Afghanistan has rapidly urbanised in the last two decades, with Kabul’s population alone having grown six-fold. This makes it even more difficult to meet the necessary energy demand. By needing to import energy from their neighbours, the country does not have enough budget to develop its own infrastructure.

‘Biodiesel is a reliable source of energy and fuel, and its environmental impact is minimal.’

The climate of Afghanistan offers the perfect place to grow poppy seeds, and there are already generations of experts who have been carrying out this their entire lives. The Taliban could invest in programmes educating previous opium farmers on how to extract the oil from the poppy seed in order to create the biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a reliable source of energy and fuel, and its environmental impact is minimal. It is practically carbon neutral and biodegradable, producing far less air pollutants than fuels produced from crude oil. Whilst crude oil is mined from the ground, which is invasive to the landscapes and ecosystems around it, growing biodiesel plants activity absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Biodiesel is an untapped market in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban want to have a positive impact on the country—providing jobs to millions of farmers, growing their economy rather than depleting it and supporting the international fight against climate change—they would be smart to invest into it.

Taliban Insurgents in Afghanistan (taken 2010). | Wikimedia Commons

In the end, time will reveal whether the Taliban has changed, and whether it can be viewed by the global audience as a government, rather than an insurgent group. So far, the Taliban is already living up to their past—brutal—reputation, in terms of violating human rights, particularly those of women and the LGBTQ+ communities.

Will the Taliban really hold true to their pledge to beautify the earth and join the global effort to tackle climate change? Can the Sharia Laws drive the Islamic Emirate State to build a positive legacy in at least one aspect of their rule—even if up to this point their funds have been drawn from drug trafficking, illegal logging and mining?

Perhaps the real question is, can you even imagine a Taliban representative attending COP26 or sitting in at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Personally, it seems like an odd thought.

Featured Image: United Nations Photo

Anwari R. And Siddique A. (2017) ‘Illegal Logging Boosts Taliban, IS Revenues In Eastern Afghanistan.’ Gandhara. Available at: https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-kunar-forest/28775967.html [Accessed September 18th, 2021]

Bader H., Clint H. Douglas C. And Fox J. (2013) Illegal Timber Exploitation and Counterinsurgency Operations in Kunar Province of Afghanistan: A Case Study Describing the Nexus Among Insurgents, Criminal Cartels, and Communities Within the Forest Sector. Journal of Sustainable Forestry. Volume 32, issue 4, pages 329-353.

BBC News (2017) ‘Taliban leader urges Afghans to plant more trees.’ BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-39094578 [Accessed September 16th, 2021]

Bove, T. (2021) ‘Why we should care about the Taliban’s environmental policies.’ earth.org. Available at: https://earth.org/taliban-environmental-policies/ [Accessed September 16, 2021]

Environmental Health Perspectives (2003) Environmental triage in Afghanistan. Environews—Spheres of Influence. Volume 111, number 9.

Horowitz J. (2021) ‘The Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of minerals the world desperately needs.’ CNN Business. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/18/business/afghanistan-lithium-rare-earths-mining/index.html [Accessed September 18th, 2021]

Kakar A. (2021) ‘Takhar: Taliban earn millions of afghanis from illegal mining.’ Pajhwok Afghan News. Available at: https://pajhwok.com/2021/04/27/takhar-taliban-earn-millions-of-afghanis-from-illegal-mining/ [Accessed September 20th, 2021]

Shalizi M., Khurram S., Groninger J., Akamani K. and Morrissey R. (2020) Redbud woodlands conservation status in Afghanistan: Implications for sustaining vulnerable ecosystems under multiple drivers of change. Global Ecology and Conservation. Volume 22.

Steinberg M., Hobbs J. And Mathewson K. (2004) Dangerous Harvest: Drug Plants and the Transformation of Indigenous Landscapes. Oxford University Press. Available at: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780195143201.001.0001/isbn-9780195143201 [Accessed September 18, 2021]

Sufizada H. (2021) ‘Minerals, drugs and China: How the Taliban might finance their new Afghan government.’ The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/minerals-drugs-and-china-how-the-taliban-might-finance-their-new-afghan-government-167169 [Accessed September 18th, 2021]

Wheatley O. (2011) Biodiesel from poppies an alternative strategy to combating the opium trade in Afghanistan. Culture and Conflict Review. Volume 5, number 3.

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