Drought, lack of investment hit lambskin trade

MAIMANA, 8 June 2009 (IRIN) - Drought, conflict and lack of investment have caused a 20 percent fall in the export of products made from a silky lambskin known as karakul, and adversely affected the livelihoods of thousands, according to the Export Promotion Agency of Afghanistan (EPAA).

The lambskin comes from one of the few animals able to survive the harsh winters of northern Afghanistan, and the trade in the pelts - or the manufacture of karakul hats, clothes and other products - has been an important source of income.

“Karakul exports reached US$10 million in 2007 but dropped to $8 million in 2008,” EPAA spokesman Rohullah Ahmadzai told IRIN, largely because of the 2008 drought in northern Afghanistan when hundreds, if not thousands, of karakul sheep died, according to aid agencies.

Afghanistan’s karakul exports generated $50-60 million annually in the 1970s but production and exports shrank rapidly after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and subsequent civil wars, before picking up somewhat after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. Exports reached about $20 million in 2005, according to EPAA.

The Taliban reportedly banned karakul products on ethical grounds, because they required the slaughter of newborn lambs, and some animal rights organizations oppose karakul products, deeming them “cruel”.

According to the International Fur Trade Federation, the karakul lamb pelt is “distinctive for its softness, its water-silk markings and lustrous, wavy curls. Most pelts are black, due to a dominant black gene… Older karakul sheep have a long, glossy fleece that can be used to make rugs and blankets.”

“No one cares about our plight”

“There are no sheep, no pelts and no buyers…no one cares about our plight,” Joma Gol, a karakul farmer in the northern province of Faryab, told IRIN.

“We earn a living from the karakul but because of the drought and lack of buyers business has virtually finished,” said another farmer, Aminullah.

Farmers also complained about a significant reduction in pelt prices over the past year. Thousands of people in Faryab, Jowzjan, Balkh, Sar-e-Pol and Takhar provinces earn a living through karakul pelts and products.

“Estimates from 1996 indicated about five million karakul sheep in the northern provinces, meaning about one third of the sheep [were] owned by villagers... The ability of the karakul to produce meat and wool under very extreme climatic and ecological conditions has obviously helped it to survive those years when, due to war and lack of demand on the international markets, pelt production was of lesser importance. Problems with security and marketing of pelts may have reduced the number of karakul sheep since then, but no exact information is available, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“In the past, one pelt sold for about 5,000 Afghanis [$100] but now it is 500-1,000 Afghanis [$10-20],” said a farmer.

The karakul market had also slumped because products had failed to keep pace with changing consumer tastes, the EPAA’s Ahmadzai said.

“The industry is in need of a capacity build-up, modernization, investment and technical support,” said Ahmadzai, adding that his agency was trying to attract government support and private investment to rehabilitate the trade.

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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