For centuries, hundreds of thousands of Afghans benefited from the income of elegant hand-woven rugs — the major source of the country’s legal earnings from export of the pieces, known across the world for their design, texture, softness and natural dyes.
However, prolonged war and the emergence of machine-made, colorful and easily affordable carpets led to a sharp fall in the export of handwoven carpets and rugs, which in return badly affected their production, according to Afghans involved in the trade.
One survey showed that competition in adjacent countries, and the fact that the Afghans moved most of the industry to Pakistan because of war, have been among other factors for the decline of production at home.
“On average, we have had not even 15 percent of production in the past few years, because we do not have the infrastructure and face lack of marketing in the region,” Mohammed Amin Nadem, one of the leading carpet producers, told Arab News.
The recent honeymoon period for the industry’s dealers re-emerged after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 but lasted for only a few years.
Exports from Afghanistan rose rapidly from $4 million in 2001-2002 to $216 million in 2005-2006, the estimates of the survey showed. The export trend considerably slumped to less than $35 million in the years that followed, the Afghan officials said.
The Afghan carpets are made mostly in northern and western parts of the country by different ethnic groups, with each area having a distinct pattern, from the octagonal elephant foot in the north, known as Bukhara print, to trappings of nomadic life and the elongated human and animal figures in western Afghanistan, mainly the Herat province.
“Apparently, the decline in exports affected carpet production at the domestic level, specifically in the northern region, where the major portion of Afghan carpets is manufactured. The Kunduz province alone suffered from a decline in carpet production by more than 50 percent, which had a detrimental effect on the livelihood of the carpet weavers. Faryab province suffered from a decline in carpet production by nearly 40 percent,” the survey said.
“We used to produce at least 2 million sq meters annually then, and now I believe the production is possibly below 200,000,” said Nadem, whose factory has woven carpets depicting faces of world leaders such as Barack Obama and George W. Bush, former US presidents.
Owing to the deteriorating economy and the mushrooming production of machine-made carpets in the region, far fewer Afghans can afford the locally produced ones, the dealers said.
Landlocked Afghanistan this year opened an air corridor for exporting its famous fresh and dry fruits to India, but exporting carpets by air freight would make the costs soar, Nadem said.
In a major boost for the multimillion-dollar regional trade, lately a historical window of opportunity opened for Afghanistan when the Chabahar sea port was inaugurated on the border with Iran.
It can also be used as a route for the export of Afghan carpets to its old traditional customers in Europe, America and the rest of the world, analysts said. However, they said the government needed to revive confidence and open up opportunities for the frustrated producers.
As part of a move to prevent the fall of the carpet industry many years ago, the government allocated hundreds of hectares of land for building a first major industrial park for production of carpets and to accommodate Afghan families who have been producing carpets and living in Pakistan, but there has been no progress on the project to date, Nadem said.