10 July 2008

The first reaction when you hear the word ‘Afghanistan' is horror, war, death, Taliban, Bin Laden, suicide bombers, etc. So when you get an invitation to visit the country, your mind is made up before the word Afghanistan is completely pronounced. No way!

That was also my exact reaction when a humanitarian organisation asked me to come over and take an (unpaid) look at the Afghan tanning industry. Since I like a good challenge I went, against the judgement of many, and I am happy I did. This is a rather unusual Limeblast, more a travel experience than my usual shooting from the hip, something I had anticipated earlier this year. Afghans are very kind people and the persons I met consider the suicide bombers and the Taliban in the same light as we westerners do. The hospitality is almost excessive. If you accept all that is offered you always have an overflowing bladder and a full stomach. The Afghans are tribal and have their own values and traditions and to them it seems that the whole world wants to interfere with that. Unfortunately they have entered their 30th year of foreign occupation. First they were invaded and occupied by the Soviets (from August 1978 until February 1989). Then the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 by terror and now, since 2001, the country has been occupied by ISAF, which in reality is a US proxy, avenging September 11. The Afghans are comprehensibly not happy as they are not masters in their own country. I saw this in action when my car had to stay at least at 100 meters distant from an ISAF military convoy in order to avoid being shot at. Just imagine you are French and you drive on a French country road and you have a Congolese military convoy that will shoot at you if you get closer than 100 meters. That would be totally unacceptable, hence one wonders why a similar situation should be acceptable to the Afghans? My hosts took great care of my wellbeing and security and I felt totally at ease and safe and very well protected. I actually hope that I will be given the opportunity to go back. Since I was not invited as a tourist I was able and required to cast a (limited) glance at the Afghan hide and skins trade and tanning industry which is well organised but under-developed. All over the country there are typical markets where live animals are traded. You have goat and sheep sections, separated from large animals which include bovines, horses, donkeys and camels. These livestock markets are trading places, therefore not all animals are necessarily sold only for slaughter. Herds are nomadic and go wherever there is food in the huge tracts of uninhabited land. There are no feedlots or fixed stables. Surprisingly and unexpectedly, the hide and skins collection pyramid in Afghanistan is organised very professionally, in spite of huge distances and difficult working conditions. Winters can see minus 50°C and summers temperatures just shy of +50°C. Hides and skins are well conserved with salt, making it possible to transport them to either Kazakhstan, Türkiye or Pakistan for processing. Butchers slaughter the animals, mostly goat and sheep, based on the demand for meat, in front of their shops in the streets. In spite of the awareness that good quality flaying is fetching a better price than hides and skins with holes or cuts, butchers pay little attention to the flay quality. There is no such thing as a slaughterhouse in the area I visited and I believe that there are none elsewhere either. Collectors who, as in most places, finance the meat trade by prepaying for hides and skins, do the rounds from butcher to butcher on a regular basis to pick up freshly produced skins, and take them to their warehouse where they are immediately salted in stacks. I have the impression that the collection rate of hides and skins is very high and few are wasted. The great majority of all raw hides and skins are exported and some small quantities come back as finished leathers. A very small quantity of the hides and skins are converted locally into leather. A modern tannery does not exist. There are a large number of small artisanal tanneries that convert raw hides and skins into vegetable tanned leather in a way now extinct in Europe and on its last legs in North-Western Africa. This leather can be sold only locally. A tannery in Afghanistan is a family business that is transferred from generation to generation. The location is a relatively small piece of land with some mud sheds, that have tanning pits in the ground. Each pit can contain a couple of hides or a dozen or so skins. Tanning is done with locally available vegetable extracts and bird excrements. There are no machines and the little mechanical manipulations are done by poles that poke into the pits or metal blades that shave/buff/stake the dry leather all in the same movement. The processing is, therefore, very basic but, mind you, there is a formula that is being followed and there is certainly some basic form of technology involved. These are simple but clever people who are performing miracles with the little means they have at their disposal. The tanneries I visited did not do their own ‘finishing' and delivered what we would consider crust to manufacturers, who colour the leather and oil it to make it supple. The ‘leather' is used for a variety of objects, shoes, bags etc. The soles for the shoes are old car tyres that are being sculpted by hand in order to give them grip. The cobblers I have seen had wooden lasts and used patterns to guarantee proper sizes and shapes. They had the knowledge that producing shoes in series was economically a better proposition. Better products are imported either from China or Pakistan. The import of cheap Chinese shoes, like everywhere else, prevents the local industry from developing itself. It is quite obvious that the Afghan tanners don't have the means to convert themselves from traditional artisanal craftsmen into modern industrialists. Too much money is required to build even the smallest of tanneries, of which they don't even have a fraction. I hope, however, that my visit will set some wheels in motion that will contribute to the improvement of conditions for our Afghan colleagues. Sam Setter [email protected]

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