Earlier this year, I volunteered to go on a month-long work detail to Afghanistan. I volunteered because the Secretary of Agriculture and the Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service put out a call for a job I knew I could do, but I had no idea what to expect.
As it turned out, providing the Afghan people with knowledge related to agricultural policy, strategy, science and technology was a rewarding experience that I found profoundly meaningful. The trip made me acutely aware of the challenges our soldiers and Federal employees must overcome daily—sometimes for years at a time and often voluntarily.
My task was to help prepare the General Directorate for Natural Resources, in the Ministry of Irrigation, Agriculture, and Livestock, for the International Conference on Afghanistan, known as the Kabul Conference, in July 2010. At the conference, each ministry presented to donor countries practical, feasible plans for developing the country with Afghan resources, talent and ideas.
Right now Afghanistan has a subsistence agricultural economy—people basically grow only enough to feed themselves—but in the long run, for the economy to grow, crops other than poppy will have to be grown at greater efficiency and economies of scale so that farmers can sell them. But how do the Afghans get there?
Flying into Kabul, I was struck by how much the color brown dominated the landscape; desertification was rampant. The few roads, brown and unpaved, led off in one direction without intersecting. The mountains in the distance were brown. And everywhere, I saw dry brown riverbeds. The vista was telling.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had asked me to help the Afghanistan government come up with a plan for conserving and protecting the country’s natural resources. Now, you have to understand that 80 percent of the land in Afghanistan is government-owned, but cultivated or grazed by tribal Afghans. Any plan the government comes up with will affect the lives of most of the country’s people daily.
I worked with NRCS Natural Resources Specialist Bruce Dubee to help the Minister of Irrigation, Agriculture and Livestock and his senior staff generate a vision for the next 20 years, and strategies to help them realize that vision.
Within the Ministry, the General Directorate for Natural Resources has three divisions: Rangeland, Forestland and Protected Areas. Rangeland is where livestock, primarily sheep and goats, graze. Forestland in Afghanistan is mostly orchards of nut and fruit trees in the south and middle of the country and some woodlands in the North. And Protected Areas—well, after more than thirty years of war, the country has some strides to make in this area.
My role was simple. Basically, every day Bruce and I met for much of the day with the Minister and his senior staff. Using white boards and large tear-off pads that we had brought, we facilitated brainstorming sessions with these men.
We asked them to dream aloud about what they’d like their country to look like. What land they considered the highest short-term priority. What land they felt needed to be protected first.
We met with all three divisions of the Directorate together and separately to create a coherent vision for the land in Afghanistan. The Rangeland Division set as its first priority protecting the areas that are currently in fair condition from desertification. The Forestland Division decided to protect woodlands that were being cut for wood. And the Protected Areas Division’s strategy was to initially create six park areas from a list of fourteen, setting policies on appropriate use for these areas.
These are just the first steps. The Ministry of Irrigation, Agriculture and Livestock’s employees still need to establish baselines so they can measure progress. They need to conduct a nationwide soil survey to help create best practices for the land. They need a natural resources inventory so they have a record of the ecosystems and wildlife in their country. They must conduct a forest survey so they know how many acres of this land exist, and how many are being destroyed every year.
There is still so much work to be done in Afghanistan. But we’re helping the Afghan people do it. One on one, our employees are helping farmers, herders, and other Afghans slowly improve their quality of life and protect their land.
My trip is only part of the story of Afghanistan. There are many NRCS employees and many employees from other USDA agencies working in the provinces and districts every day to help the Afghans help themselves. These employees are making the difference in this country one by one, day by day.