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NMSU provides 5,000 tree saplings to Afghan farmers through AWATT

NURISTAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Through the Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer Program, New Mexico State University specialists are helping farmers in Afghanistan create a better life for themselves and their families by establishing income-generating fruit and nut orchards.

Afghanistan farmers receive practical training on heading back fruit tree saplings in Nuristan. (Courtesy photo)

The AWATT program, led by NMSU under a three-year $16 million USAID cooperative agreement, provided 5,000 tree saplings to farmers in Nuristan last year through a coordinated effort involving several partner organizations.

"This AWATT project benefits participating Afghan farmers because it provides them an additional source of income," said Roger Beck, NMSU's Kabul-based director of AWATT, in a recent interview while he was on home leave in Las Cruces. "In a country where the average farm income is between $250 and $400 a year, any new earnings are a welcome bonus."

"There is also increased employment for laborers," Beck said, explaining how the program hires available community labor at $4 a day to do everything from preparing the fields to nursing the saplings to planting them. Not only will the trees help reclaim upper watersheds, but participating farmers will eventually be able to sell the fruits and nuts.

"Most importantly," Beck said, "they gain a sense of pride and accomplishment and responsibility for their environment."

The kinds of fruits and nuts the participating farmers are growing include apple, apricot, almond and walnut. The farmers involved in this project had previous experience, Beck said. AWATT provided them technical training to design and lay out their orchards, alongside the extension staff from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, which is the program's Afghan counterpart.

The project was truly a collaborative effort. The seedlings were provided by IFHope, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization working in eastern Afghanistan. The Nuristan Conservation Corps provided appropriate village-level contacts in the districts where the seedlings were planted, which is an important part of work in Afghanistan where outsiders are viewed suspiciously. IFHope conducted both classroom and practical training for supervisors and NCC workers, who then trained the farmers in proper orchard management.

AWATT selected the 200 participating farmers based on their land availability, soil quality and whether they had access to adequate water for the entire season. In addition to the seedlings, the farmers were given tools such as shovels, spades and pruning shears.

"You hear on the news about the military and civilian strategy in Afghanistan. AWATT is a very important part of that civilian strategy," Beck said. "NMSU students, faculty and staff gain by the very fact that we are working in Afghanistan. We are part of a global economy. We are putting the lessons learned in the classroom into practice. And we are part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Eventually, if the Afghan economy improves and security becomes less of an issue, there may well be opportunities for exchanges of students and faculty between NMSU and the universities we work with here in Afghanistan."

The purpose of the three-year AWATT program, which is scheduled to end this summer, is to increase food security, agricultural productivity and employment in rural Afghanistan and to help re-establish healthy watersheds by improving irrigation and agronomic practices and strengthening support services to farmers. It is a long process, but Beck will leave Afghanistan and return to New Mexico this spring, satisfied that the AWATT program has successfully introduced sustainable farming to a country that was isolated and had no access to changing agriculture practices for more than 30 years.