Kyoto aid group helping farmers revive agriculture in Afghanistan

Kyoto, December 24, 2004 (Japan Times) - When a nongovernmental organization based in Kyoto sent a study team to Afghanistan's Herat Province in November 2001, just a month after the Taliban regime had collapsed under the onslaught of U.S. retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks, it found a human disaster in progress. "Due to over 20 years' isolation and civil war, Afghanistan's infrastructure had been destroyed and the country's education and health services were inadequate," said NICCO Secretary General Norimasa Orii. "Its once-rich woods had disappeared and agricultural production had plummeted."

What had survived, however, were proud people living a life based on Islam and taking good care of their families, Orii said. They also seemed to feel a closeness with Japan, despite living just near the border with Iran.

In December 2002, the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development (NICCO) launched a project in and around the city of Herat to plant trees and develop vegetable gardens in close proximity to households. The project, aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan over the medium to long term, was sponsored by The Japan Times Readers' Fund.

NICCO opened its Herat office in February 2002 and started trying to improve the quality of education and medical care, including a program to fight tuberculosis and build hospitals and schools.

"In order for the local people to become independent, a system in which they can earn a livelihood and improve their incomes is needed," Orii said. "Since most villagers earn their livelihood through agriculture, restoration of agriculture is indispensable."

In a joint project with NICCO, Herat University's School of Agriculture set aside seedbeds in an experimental field. NICCO hopes the university will learn how to use the project funds to generate profit through agriculture so it can continue running the seedbed project after the Japanese group leaves Afghanistan.

The seedlings and saplings in the field include mulberry, apricots and almonds, which can help the farmers earn a living, tomatoes, okra and eggplant, to help them improve nutrition, and pine trees, which can serve as windbreaks.

The seedlings and saplings have been distributed to villages around Herat deemed by NICCO to have the best security for its members.

They were planted on farmers' private property, around houses or in fields.

Teachers from Herat University show the farmers how to grow the crops and visit the gardens and fields on a regular basis to monitor their growth.

NICCO has also built water conduits to ensure the villages have enough water to support agriculture in a country as dry as Afghanistan. The conduits are connected with canals, subterranean water routes and wells.

"Our vegetable garden project is aimed at three things: turning the area into a verdant area, improving the nutrition conditions of local people and helping increase their cash income," according to Orii.

Next year, NICCO plans to distribute pistachio seedlings to local farmers.