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07/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Afghan Farmers Defy Odds With NGO Help

By Dana Freyer and Suzanne Thompson

It's been several days since our plane touched down the runway at Kennedy. We're still reeling in shock and awe. The shock comes as we read American media reports filled with images of terrorism, destruction and hopelessness in Afghanistan, especially in provinces like Logar and Paktya which we visited just last week.

But awe is the prevailing image from our two weeks on the ground in six provinces--several of which were new to us as the Global Partnership for Afghanistan expands its tree enterprises to new farmers. In our flashbacks, we see family after family working barefoot in the field replanting, harvesting, and striving for peace and renewal. Yes, challenges abound--the clash of tradition and isolation with progress and knowledge. But seared in our minds are portraits of a proud, resilient people working together to rebuild a country brick by brick, tree by tree, neighbor to neighbor, reaching for a helping hand, and giving one to others.

In 10 days, we traversed countless villages in 6 provinces, lush valleys with verdant orchards and fields of wheat, surging rivers, rugged mountains topped with snow-capped peaks and miles of arid hills devoid of vegetation. We enjoyed cup after cup of tea graciously offered in the homes, shura council offices and GPFA field offices. We declined lunch and overnight visits from families who had little food and no room to spare. In the highlands of Kapisa and Panjshir, Suzanne worried that lawyer Dana would stop the car and negotiate to open a guest house and become the first tour operator to lead biking and white water rafting tours in Afghanistan.

Then there's the awe we have for our staff--now 110 Afghan men and women--our guides across the countless villages and Global Partnership for Afghanistan field offices. As our program leaders, extensionists, agricultural, forestry and irrigation experts and village facilitators, they introduced us to some of our 10,000 family farmers who've planted 6.1 million trees. As we stumbled along the rugged ledges of the terraced field to see a new nursery, it was hard to put ourselves in the black dress shoes of our Kapisa village extensionists Frishta and Saeeda, who walk this mountainous region for two hours on foot to support women in remote villages who plant orchards, nurseries and woodlots.

Then there's Rahmati, our 30-something Project Manager who journeyed in his truck across 11 provinces, including some of the most volatile, to collect unique specimens of the best Afghan fruit and nut varieties. Through his quick wit and local links to the people, he evaded a threat by local Taliban in the south. His 2-winter odyssey yielded a bounty of 1.7 million scientifically collected budwood cuttings--replete with a database of source information and GPS locations. Now, that budwood is growing on trees across the country. It forms the basis of World Bank-funded propagation nurseries and plots in the fields of many GPFA private farmers--all of which helps secure the future of Afghanistan's native tree stock.

On earlier trips we've seen the damage--the scars of war, the desertification, the dust of Kabul. But this time some changes gave us hope. There's the news of a wheat crop approaching self-sufficiency. Now, though there are still ruined homes and demining sites--the landscape and villages were healing. The best stories--and there are many--are of women like Hamida, mother of 10 in Bala Da village in Paktya--a province bordering Pakistan served by few NGOs.

Hamida joined our orchard revitalization program in 2008. Hiding her lined and weathered face from the camera with her bright green chador (she refused to be photographed), she told us that she planted her orchard 16 years ago with six local varieties of apple. Production had dwindled to a few diseased apples when Sakina, GPFA's female extensionist, helped her radically prune and fertilize her 200 trees. In 2008 alone, she harvested 3,500 kilos of apples which she sold for $4,000, in sharp contrast to the $600 annual income of her 55-year old husband, Abdul Shakoor, a taxi driver.

But Abdul Shakoor beams with pride as Hamida tells how she expects still more productivity this year--with Sakina's orchard management training. He smiled as Hamida grabbed his smooth hand to contrast her calloused palms. Her income is the primary support for the 16 people in their household.

But Hamida has a vision. She's seen the cold storage facility GPFA helped Fatima, another Paktya woman construct with her neighbors. With GPFA's help, Hamida and 15 of her neighbors are forming an association through which they hope to construct a cold store facility. "Now we sell at harvest time when the tekadar (trader) comes and prices are low. But if we could store our fruit, I could nearly double my income this winter."

Afghanistan, Sakina and other staff explain, is on the cusp of great change, but progress has its challenges. Producer associations must be registered at the Ministry of Justice in Kabul, and women like Hamida cannot travel freely to the capitol due to cultural constraints. "The women and the men of Paktya are strong," she says. "They were on the front lines as Afghanistan resisted the Russians." With time and resources, GPFA and Hamida will find a way to overcome these barriers together, asserts Sakina.

Other farmers are collaborating with GPFA and their neighbors to benefit themselves and their communities. Mirza, GPFA's forester and a project manager, showed us some of the 43 different clones of forestry trees that Haji Amin planted in 2007 on his 1/2 acre. In excellent English, Mirza, whose two daughters are in university in California, explains that Haji Amin's nursery trees one day will replace the barren earth, providing flood control, roadside protection, fuel and shade.

"Dryland, 'xerophytic' trees like redbud, pistachio, locust (acacia) and heaven tree (ailanthus glandolosa)," he said, "can recreate the natural forests in arid lands across Afghanistan. These deep-rooted trees need watering for just two years, and then you speak to the ear of the tree and say 'you support yourself with your roots.'"

Over and over, we saw that entrepreneurship is alive and well in Afghanistan. It just takes some supplies and people like Sakina, and Mirza to lead the way with training. Then success feeds success. Haji Amin and Hamida are sharing their knowledge over the fence and inspiring other farmers. They're now reinvesting their earnings in their own future--a future that until recently they could not fathom.

This is not lost on local leaders. Drinking still more tea with the Paktya Provincial Shura (Parliament), we met Zarguna Himmat, a petite woman who is the Shura's elected leader. Zarguna was seated at the center of a large circle of Shura members--mostly male, some suited, some turbaned, some wearing the white embroidered caps called Khwalai. "I have seen your projects," she said. "Your results are very good."

Forestry is the backbone of Paktya's economy, she said as she urged us to expand to Paktya's more mountainous districts, where the need is great and forests have been destroyed. She and other Shura members understand that foreigners and other NGOs question the security situation in Paktya. She challenged us to share the good news about her province, and to tell how men and women are working side-by-side to replant their fields and rebuild the economy. "For every 50 farmers you help," said one of her bearded, turbaned Shura member colleagues, "a thousand more are encouraged."

We are home now. Safe, dust-free, and enjoying the bounty of our homeland, friends and family. But the stories of Haji Amin and Hamida and our stalwart staff are indelibly marked in our hearts. As you read the dire reports in Afghanistan, we hope you will remember them and better understand the thousands like them who, with the help of GPFA and our Global Partners, are rebuilding their farms, villages and nation step by step.

Dana Freyer is co-chair and founder of Global Partnership for Afghanistan

Suzanne Thompson is on the Board of directors for Global Partnership for Afghanistan

The Global Partnership for Afghanistan works to help rural Afghans revive and rehabilitate their orchards, vineyards, farms and forests to generate food, jobs, income, environmental and health benefits. GPFA is a people-to-people, capacity-building organization that supports environmental renewal for the public good through restoring farm and community forests and planting new ones in areas of need.

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