Context & Culture

Land Grabs in Afghanistan (1): Nangrahar, the disputed o-rangeland


In the last ten years, land disputes have become a permanent feature of Afghanistan’s landscape. Always influenced by the misuse of state power, often bursting into open conflicts, sometimes getting into the limelight usually reserved for political violence, they are very seldom addressed properly by the government. Also highlighted by recent accusations by the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC), the usurpation of what constitutes a staggering amount of prime agricultural land in that most fertile of Afghan provinces, Nangrahar, is worth looking at, finds Fabrizio Foschini – especially in the light of the many similar conflicts that already exist in the province.

A majority of Afghans are today put in a situation were they have to compete against each other for access to basic resources – a place to live being probably on top of the list. In a province like Nangrahar, people have lived for decades tending the relatively small but good agricultural soil close to their villages, surrounded by vast expanses of barren, uninhabited land of unclear ownership which they may have used periodically for grazing purposes only. However, one morning – usually on a Friday, when people are eminently busy sleeping or praying – they may wake up to find that a group of refugees returning from Pakistan, of residents of other areas fleeing from violence, of land-less nomads claiming some, of deprived state employees or an all-powerful construction company have settled right on it, and they plan to stay.

Then the original residents suddenly will discover that they also had an interest in that empty piece of land – nay, that their whole existences depended on that – and they too will be ready to pitch tents, protest, fight, kill and die for it. This reaction has a rationale: If the land has been occupied by poorer-than-thou settlers no benefits are likely to come for the nearby villages, in fact only more competition in the job market and for other resources. If, on the other hand, the land has been appropriated by some businessman with the intention of setting up a residential complex, this is likely to attract road construction and other facilities, and access to these or even to a share of the residential units to be built can be claimed.

There is indeed too often only a superficial difference between a group of ragged settlers squatting over a piece of land and a multi-millionaire construction project planning to develop it, at least from a legal point of view. The fact is that legal ownership of land in Afghanistan has been undermined by three decades of war, and by a last, fatal decade of massive land grabs. Also, land deeds dating back to the pre-war period are rarely referring to areas not subjected to intensive farming.

The common trend is thus for non-irrigated rangeland to be targeted, as it is usually vacant or used only part of the year for grazing animals. The fact that these areas are often referred to as dasht or biaban by locals (both conveying the meaning of a ‘desert’) instead than simply lalmi (rainfed) land, should not create misperceptions. In Afghanistan, even in a major agricultural hub like Nangrahar, the stretch of irrigated land is relatively narrow, and ‘desert’ areas can reach very close to urban centres, thus making them suitable locations for residential purposes. Nangrahar is on the main route into Afghanistan for refugees coming back from Pakistan, and its central districts, thanks to their warmer climate, double-crop agricultural season, relatively thriving economy and security, have become a primary target for settlement, possibly experiencing one of the fastest population growth in the country.(1)

In recent times however, a development which threatens more directly the environment and the productive capacity of the province is taking place. The Nangrahar Canal is a 70 kilometres long canal built between 1965 and 1972 with Soviet development aid to provide irrigation to at least 25,000 hectares of land between the Darunta dam west of Jalalabad and Mohmand Dara district almost in view of Torkham, the border-crossing with Pakistan near the Khyber Pass. The favourable climate of Nangrahar had made the province one of the country’s first producers before the war, with some particularly prized crops as citrus fruit (whence the famous Jalalabad Orange Blossom Festival) and olives. But nowadays it’s not only the state of dereliction in which the canal has been left that contributes to a decrease in this production (read recent reportageshere and here). A great deal of the 14,000 hectares state-owned land that was part of the canal project has been encroached upon after 2001. In an instance that recently drew some interest from the institutions and the media, a significant amount of this prime agricultural land has been leased out – for a period of 90 years – by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAIL) to private investors, who promptly proceeded to divide it in residential plots and sell it to other privates.

Their advertising, according to what stated to AAN by a member of the provincial council, sounded quite reasonable: ‘They told the buyers: for 90 years the state cannot say anything to you, and after that who knows…’ In sheer profit terms too, their operation is faultless. The land in question used to yield 800 ser (ca. 7 kg) of wheat per jerib (unit of measure for land roughly equivalent to 0.2 hectare) every season, which, sold at the market price of 150 Afghanis (AFN) per kg, gives a yearly income of 120,000 AFN per year. The same land, turned in residential plots of 4 biswas each (one jerib contains 20 biswas), fetch a much higher price on the land-hungry Afghan market. Depending on their position and quality, these plots could go on sale for 300 to 400,000 AFN each, so that a full jerib could theoretically make between 1,5 and 2 million AFN.

But, on reasoning, sacrificing some of the already scarce fertile soil of Afghanistan to a housing boom that, although justified by the many houseless people, in this form responds more to speculation than to real demand, does not seem wise at all. Rather, it equates with hammering another nail in the coffin of Afghanistan’s food self-sufficiency. ‘We have reached a point where we import even straw from Pakistan’, lamented another member of the Nangrahar Provincial Council, Ayyub Khan.

And then, the legality of selling lands given on lease is of course questionable. State-owned lands belonging to the Nangrahar Canal project, like all lands managed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in the province, have been ordered back into agricultural production, given their importance, by a specific presidential decree. But this seems to have never been upheld by provincial authorities.

In fact, as many locals point out, businessmen alone could not have planned such a grand land grab scheme if they did not enjoy the support of the provincial authorities. And then, among the latter, some link two of the major investors in the Nangrahar canal land lease, Haji Ghulam Faruq and Haji Gul Murad, to provincial governor Gul Agha Sherzai, and eventually to the Attorney General and up to circles close to the President himself. Provincial council members Ebrarullah Moradi and Zabihullah Zmaray have been at the forefront in denouncing the land grab, the alleged involvement of the governor, and the state’s inaction to prevent or redress this. Zmaray recently also complained to AAN that ‘the international community has paid a lot of attention to some problems, like drug trafficking, but has completely overlooked other, in particular that of land grabs.’ The accusations against the involvement of governor Sherzai in this and other cases have been reiterated by the Deputy Speaker of parliament, Haji Zaher Qader (see Tolo TV here). This criticism is not wholly unselfish: The Arsala family, to which Haji Zaher belongs, has been the most influential in Nangrahar for decades. His father Haji Qader (killed in 2002) headed the multi-party Nangrahar Shura that coordinated anti-Soviet fight during the jihad, ruled the province until the Taleban took over in 1996 and, followed by his brother Haji Din Muhammad, filled the governorship during the earlier period of the Karzai government, until the arrival of Shirzai in 2005. Now, most of its members have become Sherzai’s archrivals and wish to regain the provincial governor’s post for the family (on their rivalry see also our previous blog).

The leasing of the canal’s land dates to three years ago, but if the scandal is bursting out now it does not depend only on the political use that a faction rival to the governor’s is willing to make of it. The renewed activity of the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC) has also been instrumental in raising the issue beyond the regional level. In an interview with Tolo TV, HOOAC director Aziz Ludin stated that land usurped in Nangrahar province ‘by four or five individuals only’ amounted to 25,000 acres (more than 10,000 hectares). Also, part of the land grabbed belonged to the property that Majid Zabuli (2), had left in several provinces for the benefit of state institutions at his death. The usurpation of Zabuli’s donation, especially in Herat city, has become a major case for the HOOAC, and the office has been subjected to much media attention, and pressure, after mentioning the involvement of powerful figures like Minister for Energy and Water Ismail Khan in the issue (read here and here). Ludin also stated that a delegation from the Justice Ministry, the National Directorate of Security and the Attorney-General’s Office, under the supervision of the HOOAC, will investigate the Nangrahar case.

But many feel that, also given the size of the game the HOOAC chose to go after, it will be difficult for it to conclude it successfully (actually, Ludin had to refute the idea of his being about to flee the country to the media, as some were debating that possibility and potential ‘asylum’ destinations – read here). This would not be the first time that the state proves unable to address land issues in Nangrahar.

The province abounds with unresolved land conflicts, of which it will be enough to give only a small sample (3):

– Qasemabad in Behsud district: In 2005 and again in 2007 there were armed clashes between local residents (Arabs) and newcomers (Pashais) over a piece of (once) desert land only a few kilometres north of Jalalabad. The Pashai enjoyed support from the security forces, then heavily under the control of Hazrat Ali, the former Northern Alliance member and Nangrahar chief of Police in 2003-04, and his network of Pashai commanders. The Arabs, on the other hand, had the support of the former mayor of Jalalabad and a couple of other Jihadi commanders. On top of it came the long-needed decision of the government to develop a township for state employees and disabled people in the area, but only 100 families out of about 1300 selected were able to get their plots, the rest being prevented from moving in by local residents (4). In 2009 UNAMA recommended recognising the property of land plots in Qasemabad to those people who had already built a house in order to avoid further armed resistance. The situation is still unresolved.

– Hisar Shahi, Rodat district: It involves a vast area (again, once desert) some twenty kilometres south-east of Jalalabad. Starting from 2005, but with roots in the 90s, a dispute emerged between local residents trying to improve their settlement conditions, a governor-sponsored project to build a residential township (Ghazi Amanullah Mena) and immigrants from remote Deh Bala district trying to settle down closer to the city. Later in 2006, with the involvement of a prominent businessman, Najib Zarab, also the Hazarbuz nomads who have their traditional winter areas in the district became involved in the conflict as they were reportedly favoured by the project (5). In the meantime, even the other communities involved had found political (and armed) support among former Jehadi commanders, and protests degenerated into open clashes in August 2008. A compromise solution involving the reservation of a quota of the residential plots for locals has since been reached, and parts of the project almost completed. The situation is however still tense as only one group of claimants have been satisfied, and with lesser plots than first promised. The major gain seems to have been on the investors’ side: One jerib of land was purchased from the state at the price of 20-30,000 AFN, and turns out now to be valued about twenty times the original price.

– Chamtala, Sorkhrod district: A state project to settle refugees returning from Pakistan (mainly former residents of Nangrahar, but also Kunar) on a stretch of lalmi land located on the border with Khugiani district clashed with the claims to the land held by both locals supported by Haji Zaher and those (from the Khugiani tribe) supported by Aman Khairi, brother of the late commander Zaman Ghamsharik (who was killed in a suicide attack in February 2010, shortly after reconciling and returning from Pakistan, while visiting the land dispute site). The political rivalry between the two families is an old and major fault line of security in the province. People displaced by an earthquake in 2009 joined the ranks of those waiting for land allocation in the area.

– Achin district: Probably the bloodiest land conflict in the region, although one of the most recent. It started in early 2010, and features two sub-tribes of the Shinwari, the Sepai and the Alishirkhel, fighting each other for a vast expanse of desert land they both covet for residential purposes. The conflict, in which at some point even the Taleban and US troops got involved, has been the subject of investigation for several government commissions and state-sponsored jirgas. However, all that was possible to achieve after the last round of negotiations – marked by an unprecedented bloodbath – in October 2011, was a two-years ceasefire. Any long-term solution to the issue seems far away (for more details, see our previousblog).

A common trait to all these disputes, apart from that of not being brought to a solution by the state (6), is the involvement of a broad range of political actors, from businessmen to commanders, acting as middle-men or heavyweights on behalf of all the parties involved. This is not just another example of ‘Afghan tribalism’ though, as most of these individuals or networks have their own economic interests at stake, or make sure to get their share of the spoils in the process.

If this is partially a consequence of a (post?)conflict situation in which armed political actors are only too numerous, there is also a structural weakness of the state institutions that allows free space of manoeuvring for this type of powerbrokers. As remarked during a recent lecture by Liz Alden Wily, who has researched land issues in depth for AREU during the past decades (find some of her studies on the subject here and here), this weakness may have its origin in the land law policy pursued so far. After having initially considered the possible existence of communal lands in its first years of existence, the post-2001 Afghan institutions have opted for a land policy that reaffirms the idea that the state owns all land not proved to be privately owned, and this includes most of the so-called ‘rangeland’ – from the climatic snow line down to the private cultivated fields at the valley bottoms.

In Alden Wily’s words ‘the state has moved from being a trustee of lands to the real owner’, but there has been a lack of transparency about the procedures concerning the transfer of property to privates and also the customary, excessive use of presidential decrees. A reform of the Land Law is now in progress, but in the current context, the MAIL entering the leasing of land business is no good news at all.

Furthermore, the state has been unable to live up to its central role as owner and manager of lands. It has, according to many observers of land issues, always strived to solve conflicts through compromises and deals struck among an elite of powerbrokers, and only very rarely tried to enforce legal provisions. Authorities at the provincial level have followed suit, arranging countless meetings between the parties, but never bringing a matter to an end by supporting the rule of law. Courts have failed to address the issues, either due to corruption or intimidation, and commissions have stepped in their place, without achieving much – except maybe mitigating major outbursts of violence. The widespread perception that the state is unable to act resolutely on the matter of land disputes has become a major incentive for land grab by powerful individuals, illegal occupation of state land by opposed sets of desperate, landless people, and self-interested meddling in the disputes by a plethora of local actors hoping to reap economic or political advantages for themselves.

The reason for such inactivity on the part of the government is not always to be found in monumental corruption schemes involving state officials (although they do indeed exist sometimes), but also in bureaucratic inertia, opportunistic conservation of the power balance among strongmen, and sheer fear of reprisals from them. For example, the reason of the state’s failure to complete its project in Qasemabad, as put forward by Zabihullah Zmaray, may sound paradoxical, but also rings sadly true: ‘It is a project meant for state employees and invalids: Therefore the government has no personal interests at stake to risk forcing the situation there…’
(1) Three of the four eastern provinces, Nangrahar, Laghman and Kunar, have consistently figured, along with Kabul, as the major return provinces for refugees during the last decade. With around 1.5 million inhabitants, Nangrahar is one of Afghanistan’s most – and most densely – populated provinces. It has already been targeted by government projects aimed at facilitating the growing number of refugees trying to settle down. In 2006, when the Land Allocation Scheme (LAS) for refugees, internally displaced persons (IDP) and other disadvantaged group was launched, Nangrahar was chosen as one of the five pilot provinces. The program in Nangrahar is overwhelmed by the number of applicants and there are long waiting lists (read here).

(2) He has also been the main developer of Afghanistan’s banking system in the 30s, and later of some of the major partially state-owned companies like Spinzar (cotton) or the Baghlan Sugar, and is seen by many as the driving force behind monarchist Afghanistan’s post-WWII modernisation attempts. He was however sidelined from active politics and went into self-inflicted exile from the mid-50s. (A short but detailed account of his life may be found here).

(3) See also a detailed and down to individual level collections of land grab cases in the Eastern Region investigated by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2004, which also shows how many disputes date back to the 80s or the 70s.

(4) This at a time when lecturers and other employees of the University of Nangrahar, for example, have been forced by high cost of life, low salaries, and lack of residential facilities, to put to cultivation all the green areas inside the campus, and even to graze cows and chicken on the lawns – amidst the indignation of the ‘respectable people’ (read about the teachers’ protest here).

(5) Najib Zarab is a former tea dealer who, also thanks to his ability at building solid relations with governor Shirzai, has become on of the top businessman in the East and in Afghanistan as a whole. Himself from the Hazarbuz Kuchi community (a nomadic and virtually separated branch of the Mohmand tribe), he is now heavily involved in the real estate and construction business.

(6) A partially different outcome has been recently witnessed in the case of Sheikh Misri township on the border between Sorkhrod and Chaparhar districts, not far from Jalalabad. The project of the Ministry of Refugees to provide houses for as many as 10,000 families of returnees, first approved in 2005, got stuck because part of the land for it had been occupied by illegal settlements of other claimants. First on 8 May 2012 and then again on 4 June, police agents razed the illegal makeshift structures built on the area. The operation proved easier than expected, with only some token resistance by illegal settlers, as many of the structures were not actually inhabited but just meant as markers for future settlement (read this Pajhwok article). Reportedly, two industrial parks, one of them focused on carpet weaving industry, will be established in the area to provide job opportunities for the returnees. However, it seems that part of the land of the township too has been taken away from the Nangrahar Canal project.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Economy & Development