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Finding Value in 'Dirt'

November 14, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nineteen-year-old Ambreen Bibi holds a bowl of wild capiscum, a chili-like plant that runs wild in her village. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

The people of Lawasi Tarari had no idea that there was money to be made in the plants that grew wild in their gardens and communal areas.

"To us, it was like dirt outside," said Haji Khalid Mehmood, an elder in this small village in the heart of Pakistan's Muzaffarabad District. "We would cut them down like weeds."

Many of these plants they used to toss aside are highly valued for their medicinal properties. Mercy Corps brought this to the attention of the villagers in the months following the 2005 earthquake. Now they are earning upwards of 4,000 Pakistani rupees (around US$50) a month by picking and selling wild thyme, zytho xylum (an additive for toothpaste) and other plants that they see every day.

Leading this campaign is 19-year-old Ambreen Bibi, an industrious young woman chosen to lead the village collector committee because of her hard work and advocacy on behalf of others.

"My neighbors and family all collect these plants and give them to me," she says, pointing to an aromatic bowl of wild thyme on a table. "I take them to the market for them, get the money and then share the profits with them. I make sure everyone gets their share."

It is a rare show of confidence for this village to put this responsibility in the hands of a female. But considering the results (her village has earned 70,000 rupees, or around $870 U.S., in a year and a half) and Ambreen's ability to encourage others to join in, it makes perfect sense.

"I even have my grandfather helping me now," she says, hiding her smile behind her shawl. "Until now, if an old man and a small child tried to work together, nothing would get done!"