And the impact will not just be environmental. Rangelands in the country – one of the most volatile in the world – have often become sites of ethnic and communal conflicts and will remain at the core of these conflicts in future as well, says a new research paper published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Rangelands constitute between 45 and 70% of Afghanistan’s land area.

“Livestock raising based on the extensive use of the rangeland resources is an essential component of the local farming system and a livelihood strategy for over 80% of Afghanistan’s nearly 30 million people,” says the paper by Aziz Ali and Yi Shaoliang, rangeland management experts at the Aga Khan Foundation.

Estimates by organisations like the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) put the number of nomadic pastoralists, or Kuchis, who depend entirely on raising mobile livestock for their livelihood, at around 1.5 million.

According to researchers, the high-altitude rangelands of Afghanistan provide a wide range of ecosystem services. They are critical resources for the country’s socio-economic development, habitats for biodiversity conservation, sources of water and corridors for cultural exchange.

Problems with these resources, the researchers say, would affect crop production in the lowland areas and the whole livelihood system, especially the food security of rural communities.

Pastures as water sponges

Rains come in the winter in Afghanistan, which is not the agriculturally active season. Agriculture therefore is totally dependent on irrigation; the capacity of the highland rangelands to conserve water is thus essential for the continuous water supply to downstream areas during the dry season. “The loss of such capacity of the rangelands due to degradation could have grave consequences on the food security of not only Afghanistan but the whole region as most of the rivers in the region originate from these highland pastures,” the researchers have warned.

The highland rangelands of Afghanistan are also the most significant centres of origin of domestic plants and animals, which are threatened.

“Afghanistan has some 3,500 to 4,000 indigenous species of vascular plants of which 20 to 30% are endemic. Many of the larger mammals in Afghanistan are categorised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as globally threatened which include the snow leopard, wild goat, markhor goat, Marco Polo sheep, urial and Asiatic black bear,” the study states.

The temperature in Afghanistan has increased by an average of 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade since the 1960s, higher than the world average, and precipitation has decreased by 2% per decade. The incidence of rain has decreased by four to eight times per month during the rainy season. Over the last 10 years, summers in the alpine regions have become longer and winters shorter.

“Due to the rising temperature, pastoralists are going to the highland pastures much earlier than in the past which is likely to have a marked impact on the rangeland ecosystem,” the paper says.

Ethnic conflict

All this has exacerbated ethnic conflict in the country. The rangelands are essential for the country’s economic system and rural livelihoods and become a bone of contention between different users, a factor which can easily develop into conflict.

Tensions between ethnic groups in the region have a long history. Putting it in perspective, the researchers note: “In the late 19th century, many highland rangelands were taken forcefully from local inhabitants by the then king of Afghanistan and given to Pashtun pastoralists. This sowed the seed of conflicts between local sedentary communities and nomadic pastoralists which have lasted until today.”

The lack of any coherent legislation on land rights also generates tensions between nomads and sedentary farmers, especially in relation to conflicts of interest between winter grazing and crop cultivation. “In some cases, the conflict is between the government, often represented by powerful groups, and local communities, since there is no clear distinction between ‘government-land’ and ‘land owned by the public but under the care of the government’. This facilitates the taking away of common resources from a community by those in power,” states the study.

Conversion and overexploitation

Conversion of rangelands into rain-fed farmland either for fodder or other production purposes is common across Afghanistan. “This practice has caused a visible decrease in available rangeland area and disturbance to routes of animal migration and is bringing about serious erosion problems,” say the researchers. Since rangelands are common resources in Afghanistan, and cultivated land is often privately owned, converting rangelands into farmland is actually converting commons into private land. This land seizure is often done by influential and wealthy families at the cost of the poor.

Despite the low productivity of the rangelands of Afghanistan, the number of animals is very high compared to the total fodder production from the natural rangelands thereby well exceeding the carrying capacity of the rangelands. “As a result, most of the rangelands are overused.”

Fuel shortage, says the paper, is a critical issue in rural areas of the country. “The increasing demand for energy arising from the growing population has created serious pressure on traditional rural energy sources particularly on fuelwood and rangeland shrubs.”

The latest trigger to deprive the poor of critical natural resources like rangelands is the fast developing plans to exploit Afghanistan’s lucrative mineral and hydrocarbon resources, says Liz Alden Wily, international development advisor and fellow of Rights and Resources Initiative an NGO based in Washington. Foreign companies, including Chinese and Indian state companies, are already active players in this.

“The anticipated billions of dollars which can be made from these exploits for input into the needy civil budget reinforces state reluctance to concede state ownership of all but the very limited legally documented private landholding sector (less than 10 % of the total land area),” Wily told quoting from her study ‘The Battle over Pastures: The Hidden War in Afghanistan‘.

Changes, she says, have massively affected pastures in both the south and northeast of the country through the expansion of cultivation into pasture lands for opium poppy production.

Revitalising the rangelands 

The authors of the ICIMOD paper have suggested a few measures for the sustainability of rangelands. The most important is to keep their ownership in the hands of the local community. “Due to the non-equilibrium nature of the rangeland ecosystem in Afghanistan, it is important that local communities be given the right to own the resources and make decisions on their management so as to cope with uncertainties and increase their incentives for management input and sustainable use,” they say.

The authors further suggest that reducing pressure on the already degraded natural pastures is imperative for the recovery and health of the rangeland ecosystem. “Wherever possible, fodder cultivation should be encouraged using drought resistant species (e.g. wild alfalfa). The demand for fuelwood in the target area is huge, and there is considerable potential to meet part of this demand by developing and diversifying rural energy and improving energy efficiency in the local communities.”

Emphasising the need to develop locally appropriate models for rangeland rehabilitation, the report suggests that such models should take into account both the short-term and long-term interests of the farmers while reconciling ecological and economic efficiencies, “for example, through the integrated use of fodder plants, short-lived cash crops, and fodder-fuel-wood (shrub) and fruit tree models.”

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