By Ahmad Shah
In the southern Afghan province of Khost, the valuable pine nut harvest is still gathered as it has been for centuries. Ali Marjan, a former teacher displaced by violence from the Gomal district of Paktika, explained how he and his family spent days thrashing heaps of pine cones, dried in the hot Khost sun, to extract their precious seeds, known as chilgoza.
Marjan said that this seasonal work was the only means he had found to support his family, adding, “My wife and I, along with my kids, hit the pine cones with sticks to extract the pine nuts,” he said. “There’s no other work so this is what we do, and take the pine cones home with us to use as fuel.”
In the southern province of Khost, pine nuts are an important crop, fetching 22 US dollars per kilo, as well as a prized export. But local producers and traders complain that development has been halted by a lack of government investment and regulation, combined with Pakistani intransigence over export conditions.
Pine trees grow wild in several mountainous regions of Afghanistan and particularly in Loya Paktia, which includes Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces. Although decades of war and lawlessness have decimated Afghanistan’s forests, a tribal agreement in the area has protected pine trees ever since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.
Shahzada Zadran, head of the local chilgoza association, said that pine nuts had become even more valuable over the last half-dozen years. Two markets had been set up in Khost alone for buying and selling the seeds, he continued.
Allahmir, who runs one of these markets, said that last year Afghanistan exported nearly 3,500 tonnes with a value of 77 million dollars. This year, with a better harvest due to increased rainfall, he predicted that exports would increase to 5,000 tonnes with a value of more than 100 million dollars.
But Afghanistan is heavily dependent on Pakistani goodwill for the free flow of goods – and that is not always forthcoming given the difficult diplomatic relationship between the two countries.
Kost traders complain that they are being held hostage over both access to trade routes – claiming that the Angur Ada route into Pakistan is regularly closed during pine nut season – and exorbitant taxation.
“When Pakistan shuts the crossing, with the passage of time pine nuts dry up and decrease in weight, which causes us big losses,” Zadran said. “This year, Pakistan took further illegal action against us: they charge us one and-a-half dollars for each kilo of chilgoza and do not provide any kind of invoice or bill in return for this payment.”
He said that each lorry travelling towards Pakistan was loaded with around 15 tonnes of pine nuts, meaning that the Pakistani government leveled a fee of 15,000 dollars on vehicle. Traders had little choice but to sell to Pakistan, Zadran continued, because Afghanistan had failed to access wider markets directly.
“If the Afghan government had found an international market for chilgoza, then we would not be faced with this lawless behavior by Pakistan and our Afghan products would not be exported to other countries as Pakistani products,” he continued.
Gull Amin, a trader, also said that while pine nuts from Loya Paktia were prized in both Europe and China, they were sold there as Pakistani products.
“Since we don’t have access to the international market, Pakistan buys our chilgoza at the lowest possible price, then they process and pack it in Lahore and offer it to the international market at the highest prices and as a Pakistani product,” he said.
Zadran said that they were exploring how to develop export arrangements with China and that last year his office had even brought some Chinese businessmen to Khost province
“We have been in continuous contact with the Chinese embassy regarding buying our pine nuts, as they are very interested in trading chilgoza,” he said.
But local officials said that central government had not supported them in fighting to access to wider markets or improve infrastructure that would help in pine nut processing or storage.
Nawab Amirzai, head of the Khost chamber of commerce, said that the government had failed to even try to obtain accreditation to ensure Afghan pine nuts met international standards for export.
Khazan, a pine-nut trader from Khost province, said that cold storage facilities were badly needed to allow the industry to develop. Without this infrastructure, the nuts barely lasted a month in prime condition.
“Right now we are tired out by [trying to preserve] our own goods,” he said. “If they are exposed to the warm air, they lose weight or rot, which disadvantages us and leads to losses.”
Khost director of agriculture Fazulrahim said that action was already planned to address this issue.
“We have plans to build cold storage in three different places in the districts of Mangal and Zadran district and in some areas of Tani district, because these locations have the highest pine nut yields,” he said.
But Amirzai said that traders also had to take responsibility for failing to cooperate with the government. Very little of the pine nut crop was exported legally, with traders choosing to operate below the radar.
“Out of fear of having to pay taxes, they have not registered with the chamber of commerce and this means they are engaged in an illicit trade, in smuggling, rather than fair trading,” Amirzai said.
Khost governor spokesman Mubarez Zadran agreed, adding, “If pine nut traders don’t register, they have no right to ask the government to provide them with facilities.”
Bahram Burhani, the director of Khost’s department of commerce and industry, said that this refusal to cooperate with official mechanisms meant that there were few positive steps for his office to pursue.
“Traders aren’t ready to register themselves and if you force them into registration, they will spread rumours that we take money from them,” he said.
However, one trader, Qasigul, explained that he and his colleagues were simply afraid that they would be taxed on revenue they had not yet earned.
“Traders don’t have their own cash, they buy pine nuts on credit, and this is the reason that they don’t want to register,” he said. “They’re scared that the government will count the loans as investment and impose higher taxes, although it’s not their money.”
Fazulrahim acknowledged that the previous administration had paid little attention to pine nut sector, something that Khost governor Hukum Khan Habibie has vowed to address.
He told an agricultural meeting last month that because Afghan pine nut traders lacked direct access to international markets, Pakistan was earning between 100 to 150 million dollars from selling Afghan pine nuts.
“I would like to create a mechanism which will include the planting of pine trees, pine nut extraction, processing and packaging as well as exporting this valuable item to international markets,” he said. “No one has yet paid proper attention to this national resource.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Supporting Investigative Reporting in Local Media and Strengthening Civil Society across Afghanistan initiative, funded by the British Embassy Kabul.