Standing high on a hill in Sakhari Bagh, Afghanistan, steps leading up to the old resthouse of King Amanullah are visible and remains of a pool and fountain lie to the right. The palace, lavish in the '20s, was reduced to a pile of rubble in the '80s by the Soviet war. The buildings were destroyed and the trees all cut down for firewood. But today, the area is the site of a prosperous future.
Sakhari Bagh is one of 16 nurseries being developed and operated by Mercy Corps. With the support of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Mercy Corps is implementing a Livelihood Support and Population Stabilization program in southern Afghanistan.
Engineer Atiqullah, Mercy Corps Deputy Program Manager, is overseeing the nursery program. "We have nurseries in three provinces in southern Afghanistan - Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan," he says. "The focus is to rehabilitate drought-affected orchards and rejuvenate household income sources, as well as to ensure that young farmers are educated in agricultural techniques. As a result we hope that poppy cultivation decreases, and orchard farming can once again become a major source of livelihood for these farmers."
Mercy Corps provides high-yielding, high-quality varieties of traditional crops such as apricots, almonds and pomegranates. Engineer Atiqullah stresses, "The goal is to use local methods, while providing education and resources to introduce more productive farming techniques and better strains of saplings."
Training includes topics such as land preparation, seed sowing, fertilization, irrigation, grafting and budding, pest and disease control, pruning techniques and nursery management.
The farmers own the land for the nurseries. Mercy Corps, with the assistance of OFDA provides for training, salaries, fertilizers and irrigation. At Sakhari Bagh, which is owned by the Kandahar Municipal Committee, the provincial government and Mercy Corps share the saplings produced by the nursery. The government receives half of the ornamental saplings and one-third of the fruit saplings to be used for city beautification projects. Mercy Corps receives the remaining saplings for distribution to other nurseries and farmers. At the other 15 nurseries, farmers receive one-third of all saplings produced and Mercy Corps distributes the remainder to other farmers and nurseries.
The goal of the initiative is to provide over 40,000 saplings to 2,000 families. The long-term impact of the program has significant potential: Mature almond trees produce 22 kilos of nuts that have a significant local market value.
According to Andrew Johanson, Mercy Corps Senior Program Manager, orchard production is significantly more valuable than field crops (except for poppy). "However, trees must be 3-4 years old before they begin to produce," says Johanson, "and typically 10 years before they produce maximum yield."
August is the typical time when saplings are grafted and Engineer Atiqullah is busy demonstrating the technique to young farmers. Grafting is a method to combine the strengths of two varieties of trees into one sapling. A variety with a strong root system is first grown and then the branching system of another variety that has an exceptionally high yield of fruit (but a weak root system) is then grafted or implanted onto the variety with the strong root system. The end result: a sapling with a strong root system and high-yielding branch system. These grafted saplings will be ready for distribution in early spring 2004.
Last year over 100 young farmers were trained in grafting techniques. This month these farmers were transferred to other nurseries in Helmand and Uruzgan to train more farmers.
After Engineer Atiqullah completes his grafting lesson, he proudly shows the fruits of his labors at the nursery. A large grape vineyard with over 26 varieties using a trellis system demonstrates how this technique, not previously used in the region, can increase production and make harvesting easier. A pomegranate orchard has been established to show farmers how to properly plant and train the saplings, as well as use fertilizers, pest control and irrigation systems.
A new variety of Poplar trees stand in a nearby grove. Imported from Pakistan, these trees mature much more quickly than the traditional variety used in Afghanistan and will produce timber in five years. Further on in the nursery is an experimental field. "We have planted maize [corn] and fruit trees together in one plot," explains Engineer Atiqullah. "We are monitoring the field to see if the maize can help to stabilize the trees against the drought by preventing loss of water due to evaporation."
Throughout the nursery it is evident that close attention has been given to encouraging farmers in natural, environment-friendly approaches to pest control, drought alleviation and other problems typical in the region.
The seeds of the program have been sown and some benefits are already apparent in the newly trained young farmers. But, according to Mercy Corps' Johanson, "This is a long-term program that needs long-term funding. If funds are stopped there will not be money to support irrigation and well maintenance and crops could die. You can't grow a fruit tree in a year - it is a five-year investment."