The traditionally nomad Kuchi minority, which for centuries has crossed Afghanistan’s high plains with its caravans of livestock, has been increasingly forced to relocate to settled areas over the past three decades.
The on-going conflict in Afghanistan as well as environmental, socio-economic and political factors have been the main causes determining the nomads' search for permanent land.
According to the Afghan Central Statistics Office, there are currently around 3 million Kuchis, accounting for 10 percent of Afghanistan’s total population. Only around one-third of the Kuchis still lead nomadic lives. A 2008 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment emphasized that over 54 percent of the Kuchis live in absolute poverty, with many of them resorting to begging and living in urban slums. They are also one of the most marginalized and poor communities in Afghanistan.
Many Kuchis stress that local hospitals refuse to treat their sick and schools do not accept their children, partly because most of them do not have birth certificates and other identity papers. As a result of their lack of education and the simplicity of the nomadic life, the Kuchis are often treated as stupid, dirty and backward.
In spite of their social marginalization, the minority makes a significant contribution to the country’s economy and lifestyle, given that around two-thirds of the animals sold in Afghanistan, particularly sheep and goats, are raised by Kuchi nomads. At the same time, the nomads’ lifestyle, consisting of moving from warmer lowlands in winter to mountain pastures in summer, represents a perfect form of adaptation to Afghanistan’s semi-arid and very arid environment as well as to its fragile and difficult terrain, which make it nearly impossible to raise livestock in one fixed location.
Nevertheless, in the current Afghan context, one million Kuchis have decided to partly settle, moving only for the main change of the seasons, while hundreds of thousands have either fully settled down or are petitioning the government to give them land. The Afghan Constitution requires the government to allocate permanent land for the Kuchi minority and assist it into integrating itself into settled areas.
While searching for permanent residence, some of the Kuchis have started clashing with local authorities and rival ethnic groups, who accuse them of encroaching on their lands. In December 2012, hundreds of Kuchis opposed attempts by Kabul authorities to evict them from makeshift settlements in the capital’s Qasaba district. While leaders of the Kuchis claimed that the authorities had given them land in Qasaba, the minister for urban development affairs and housing said that only 30 nomad families had been granted temporary residence in the district, and that, after hundreds more moved there illegally, all had been ordered to leave.
In 2010, a similar dispute broke out in Kabul’s Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood, when a group of Kuchis, claiming that their ancestors owned the land in the areas, clashed with ethnic Hazara residents. The government moved the nomads to the ruins of the Darul Aman palace, where they lived for months without electricity or adequate water supplies, before moving to the city’s slums.
At the same time, during the past few years, Kuchis have entered numerous disputes with Hazara residence in Wardak and Bamyan provinces over grazing lands, with the latter acusing the nomads of invading their villages and damaging their farmlands and property.
Although local and national authorities often neglect these conflicts surrounding the Kuchis’ access to permanent land and fail to adopt adequate measures to prevent and resolve them, many members of government have stated that they would like the remaining numbers of nomadic Kuchis to fully shift to a settled life, as they believe this could constitute a possible solution for the minority’s currently high levels of social exclusion and poverty. Nevertheless, there are considerable political and economic concerns regarding such a drastic change, especially since Afghanistan is short of land and employment opportunities for its urban population and imports a large amount of food.