Sun, 08/03/2002 – Jude Fanton
Seed Savers was invited by NICCO, a Japanese NGO, to present viable alternatives to the development blueprint imposed by aid agencies, multinational corporations and the UN for reconstructing Afghanistan after twenty three years of war. Here directors, Michel and Jude Fanton, tell about training they conducted in December 2002 in Herat, the ancient capital of western Afghanistan.
The heads of the agriculture high school and faculty at the university in Herat requested that we present an alternative to high input, chemical agriculture to their staff and ninety students. We showed case studies of sustainable agriculture and local seed production and distribution from other countries we have worked in and painted a realistic picture of industrial agriculture. The cold lecture rooms were overflowing with a responsive crowd of students most of whom were from farming families.
Having two interpreters facilitated our many practical exercises, discussion groups and games that maintained interest levels over the nine days. When we did a role-play about a village agro-forestry project it was the first time either students or lecturers had done anything like this. They were surprisingly good actors. The erudite head of the department played the village leader and we managed to get three male lecturers to play women’s roles, including one widow, not a small achievement in an Islamic state.
Strategies for Reconstruction
In our discussions with staff and students, it became evident that reafforestation is a major priority in Afghanistan. Many forests were cleared during the wars to flush out rivals.
The head of the university agriculture faculty presented plans and asked for help to establish an agro-forestry nursery for local tree species, a cereal and vegetable seed bank and to adapt and translate The Seed Savers’ Handbook. We presented him with copies of the Handbook and other books on plants bought in Iran on our way there.
Traditional Afghan Farming
Traditional farming systems in Afghanistan are highly sophisticated. It is the centre of domestication for such important crops as onions, carrots, almonds, apricots and wheat.
Black carrots were domesticated in Afghanistan. Farmers can produce crops in areas that have very low rainfall, frequent sandstorms and both scorching and icy winds. They build high mud walls around their market gardens, rotate their vegetables with cereals and pulses and graze the sheep and goats in between crops. Around the periphery, just inside the walls, grow many species of nut and fruit trees. The famous grapes of Herat (80 varieties) are planted in trenches two metres deep and climb up four metre high mud walls, so they are protected from the harsh weather. The farmers we visited were surprised that we appreciated their traditional methods such as companion planting, composting and irrigation techniques and that we were even familiar with some of them.
Most farmers we met use traditional varieties of vegetables. In that wintry weather they were growing turnips, leeks, black and yellow carrots and beetroot. Those using the imported corporate seed donated by aid agencies, such as Dutch-bred orange carrots, hybrid cauliflowers and cabbages, invariably use a panoply of pesticides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers. Proud of their new seeds and chemicals, they seemed to have little idea about safety and the real costs. It was heartbreaking to see such great farmers making changes for the worse. Unfortunately even well-meaning aid agencies promote chemical agriculture.
These high school students in Herat learnt seed saving in 2002
Status of Women
A few weeks after our visit the central Afghan government outlawed women teaching male students so Jude must have been one of the last women to do that. We had one only female student who had been a taxonomy lecturer. Here is the comment she wrote in Farsi: ‘For me everything is new for I had been home for six years and didn’t know all these new ideas. Now I study again and can refresh my knowledge.’ We wonder how she will be able to teach now.
The NGO staff who hosted us are now on alert, recommended not to leave the office, so our planned return in March 2003 was cancelled, but we may now go in September. We also hear that the authorities have prohibited their widows’ gardening programme. However the tree nursery on the university’s farm is going ahead and hopefully Seed Savers will be able to source funds for the university seed bank.
Note: We did go again in September 2003 – read report later.