Afghanistan used to be carpeted with forests of cedars watered by
monsoon mists. Today less than 2 percent of the country remains
forested. Most of Afghanistan’s woods were cut and cleared in just the
past 20 years.
“The worst deforestation occurred during Taliban rule, when its timber Mafia denuded forests to sell to Pakistan markets,” Pakistan environmental consultant Usman Qazai told the New Scientist.
Only 15 percent of Afghanistan can support farming and only 6 percent of that percentage is being farmed. In Afghanistan On-line [www.afghan-web.com], Daud Saba notes that 30 percent of Afghan farmlands and pastures now lies abandoned while critical crop-growing land around Kabul has been swallowed up by urban sprawl. Since 1979, Saba writes, “our agricultural farm products have decreased 50 percent.” During the long civil war, Saba reports, “forested areas and farmlands were burned and degraded. It is estimated that 10,000 villages and their surrounding environments were destroyed.”
But it’s not only Afghanistan’s human population that has suffered. The world’s conscience was stirred by the well-reported plight of the captive animals in the bullet-chipped Kabul Zoo. Less well-known is the impact of the US invasion on wildlife in Afghanistan’s remote plains and mountains.
The migration paths of pelicans and endangered Siberian cranes cross through eastern Afghanistan - a region that became a war zone filled with the noise of combat helicopters, jet bombers and exploding shells. As a result, the World Wildlife Fund reports, the number of birds safely surviving the migration south fell by 85 percent this past winter.
The rugged Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains that hosted the cave redoubts of Al Qaeda fighters also are home to rare and reclusive mountain leopards, gazelles, bears and Marco Polo sheep. While it is difficult to document the damage to wildlife done by the US bombing campaign, the harm being wrought by desperate refugees is tragically quantifiable. Afghanistan’s rare snow leopards have become the target of people desperate to secure safe passage across the border to Pakistan. A snow leopard pelt brings $2,000 on the black market. There are only 5,000 snow leopards left in central Asia and Afghanistan is home to fewer than 100 of these magnificent cats.
A “tombstone moment” in the history of evolution occurred in Afghanistan in April 1997 when a pair of Caspian Tigers (Panthera Tigris Virgarta) were captured in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains. They were believed to be the last free-roaming members of the species.
“Timber, falcons and medicinal plants are also being smuggled across the border,” Fred Pearce reports in the New Scientist. “The Taliban once controlled much of this trade but the recent power vacuum could exacerbate the problem.”
After reviewing the results of an environmental assessment of the post-Taliban situation, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Klaus Toepfer noted that Afghanistan’s people “cannot secure real and sustainable economic development against a background of contaminated water, polluted land and marginalized natural resources.”
The Iron Rain of War
Twenty-three years of internal conflict has left Afghanistan’s hills and valleys littered with as many as 10 million land mines. Then came four months of unrelenting bombing by US aircraft. The US air invasion created as many as 4 million internal refugees who were forced to ransack the surviving forests for firewood and demolish woodlands in desperate attempts to grow food.
The avalanche of US bombs also incinerated woodlands, shattered mountain valleys and stained the land with toxic compounds including cyclonite (a carcinogen), perchlorates from rocket propellants and depleted uranium.
In addition to bombs, grenades, rockets and artillery shells, the US also peppered the Afghan countryside with clusterbombs - an anti-personnel weapon that is notoriously random when it comes to killing.
US planes dumped 1,210 CBU-87 “motherbombs” on Afghanistan. Each “motherbomb” contains 202 BLU-97 “bomblets” that are carried to earth attached to small parachutes. Released at a height of 300 to 400 feet, each of these motherbombs can cover an area about the size of three soccer fields. A single B-52 bomber can scatter more than 8,000 deadly bomblets over an area the size of 120 soccer fields.
Each bomblet is designed to erupt into a deadly fireball containing 300 blades of armor-penetrating shrapnel. The shards of flying metal are designed to cut through seven inches of steel. They cut through human bodies like butter.
As dangerous as the bomblets are when they explode, they can be even deadlier when they fail to detonate. On the ground, the brightly colored soda-can sized bombs attract curious children - with tragic results.
The Pentagon claims that only 5 to 7 percent of the bomblets fail to detonate on impact, but Sean Moorhouse, a bomb disposal expert with the US World Food Program, told the Washington Post that the failure rate is closer to 14 percent. The British Halon Trust sets the failure rate at 20 percent - which translates into 48,884 live bomblets scattered across Afghanistan’s roads and fields.
US clusterbombs have now added to the vast inventory of unexploded land mines that must be located and removed before farmers can return to their fields and children can safely return to schools. Since the campaign to clear Afghanistan’s land mines commenced in 1989, only one-fourth of the country had been cleansed. (The effort suffered a setback when, in its first week of bombing, US planes hit a UN building, killing an entire team of UN mine-clearing experts.) At present rates, Afghanistan’s Mine Control Planning Agency estimates that it will take 30 to 35 years to remove the mines.
Building Schools in Afghanistan The nonprofit Relief International [111965 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90066, (310) 572-7770, www.ri.org] has begun a campaign to build 2002 schoolhouses for the children of Afghanistan in 2002. A schoolhouse can be built in Afghanistan for only $1,000. The Earth Island staff has matched a $500 grant from Earth Island Journal’s Green Pages Fund to finance the construction of a school in Afghanistan. Global Exchange [www.globalexchange.org] and survivors of the World Trade Center bombings have asked Congress to allocate $20 million to compensate innocent Afghan civilians who have lost relatives and property to the US bombing campaign. To join the global Call for a Moratorium on Clusterbombs, contact the Mennonite Central Committee [21 S. 12th St., PO Box 500, Akron, PA 17501, (888) 563-4676, www.mcc.org].
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