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Taliban Takeover Puts Afghanistan’s Cashmere, Silk Industries at Risk

Afghanistan's cashmere industry was thought to have huge potential. Flickr/Jelle Visser

Afghanistan’s budding cashmere industry, which was the focus of initiatives sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), USAID and a high-profile joint project unveiled by the Burberry Foundation and Oxfam in 2018, is in a state of limbo following the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

Afghanistan is the third largest cashmere producing country in the world after China and Mongolia, producing 1,000 metric tonnes of cashmere annually, with yearly exports valued at $18 billion, according to research from Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

There has been enormous interest in boosting the country’s cashmere industry because only 10 to 30 percent of Afghanistan’s cashmere-producing goats are being harvested for the high-value material, with the bulk still being used primarily for meat and milk, with cashmere taken as a byproduct.

Now, with chaotic evacuations underway and a Taliban spokesperson telling reporters that working women should stay home for the time being, no-one seems sure what the future holds for these initiatives. BoF reached out to the IMF, USAID representatives, Burberry and Oxfam for comment, but did not receive replies prior to publication.

Empowering women was a key tenant of the Burberry Foundation and Oxfam’s cashmere supply chain initiative.

“Women are often the ones working with livestock, doing the dehairing [separating fine cashmere from the coarser hairs],” Agnė Baltaduonytė, advocacy manager at Oxfam in Afghanistan, told British Vogue last year, adding that 28 per cent of the herders supported through the initiative so far are women. “We’ve been trying to promote women in leadership positions, and having female co-ordinators at the stop shops.”

The silk sector also appears to be at risk. Since November 2016, the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) has been working in Afghanistan to help reinvigorate its economy through a EU-funded project that promotes the cultivation of silk production.

Previously, silkworm cocoons had been exported in bulk to Iran, where the actual silk production would occur, meaning Afghan farmers would be paid very little for the potentially high-value crops they were growing. EFI has focused on building a whole value chain for Afghanistan’s silk industry, connecting farmers and artisans to the global market for luxury goods.

“The EFI is not a normal development project that we simply wind up when the international community leaves,” EFI founder and head, Simone Cipriani, said. “It’s part of the civil society of Afghanistan. What we have co-built together belongs to Afghan society. Afghan companies, staffed by Afghans, with Afghan producers. They are still very much there and we are ready to continue our work of mentorship and facilitation as soon as possible.”

But the situation on the ground remains highly unstable. Yesterday, Reuters reported that the Taliban appointed an acting head of the central bank to help ease “growing economic turmoil”, but many Afghans fear that the US withdrawal from the country will spark a wave of terror that effectively erodes the civil liberties gained during the period that the hardline Islamist group was not in power.

Despite the Taliban’s claims that it has changed, a senior United Nations’ human rights official has said that there is credible evidence that executions are being carried out by the group against civilians and Afghan security forces. A Taliban spokesperson told the media yesterday that Kabul airport is now closed to Afghan nationals, and there are reports that would-be refugees desperate to leave the country are now being turned back.

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