Renewing a family’s dream of land


June 30, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The croplands of Afghanistan's Kunduz province are fertile, but prone to crop-killing floods. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Sayeed Farhad Zalmi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Drainage canals help divert floodwaters from family farms. Photo: Sayeed Farhad Zalmi/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

It was raining hard that day, a rain that brought hope to land and livestock owners in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. It was the rain of the first month of spring, beneficial for the lands and pastures, but also bringing hopelessness to some farmers in the Imam Saib district. For many in this area, the first rains mean flooding.

The water table is high in villages of the district. When the rains arrive, agricultural lands are waterlogged and not cultivatable. What comes as a blessing to most farmers means bad conditions for these families.

At the onset of the rainy season, we rode to the Imam Saib bazaar and walked up to the villages. A sleepy little road led us to the village of Batash. Walking these small and muddy streets in the rain is quite difficult for a stranger. Even though the locals are used to these conditions, they still find them challenging to navigate this time of year.

Good agricultural land is considered more valuable than gold treasure in northern Afghanistan. But in this community, those who have land are equal to those who don’t, because farming the land is so difficult. Everyone struggles to survive: agriculture is not considered a good vocation in Batash because of the constant hazard of flooded croplands.

Sixty-year-old Haji Mohammed Alem has a wife, nine sons and two daughters. A family this large is not unusual in Afghanistan. This family of thirteen longs to farm their own 29 acres of land in Batash, but flooding has forced them to find alternatives in order to survive.

“This area is full of water,” he told us. “In the past, we had a system for draining the lands. But it’s been damaged for 30 years now.”

“Three of my sons and I are working as farmers for other land owners; we can earn about 10,000 Afghanis (about US $211) per month,” he continued. He spends almost all of his income on food, and whatever is left over on clothes and school expenses for his children.

“My father was a rich man in our village in the past, but wars took everything from us. We had 500 sheep which was the most livestock in the village,” Alem said. Haji Mohammad Alem is a gentle old man with bad memories of war in Afghanistan. He tells us that he never joined any armed group and regrets that his father never let him go to school.

Alem is among the rare Afghan villagers who allow their daughters to attend school. “An educated person can survive more easily than an uneducated person,” he said. “My six sons and two daughters are going to school. I hope they become government or non-governmental organization employees one day in the future.”

“If I had gone to school it would not be this hard for me to survive now,” he remarked. “I would have a job and wouldn’t be dependant on lands that are so hard to cultivate. What can this land give me?”

“Last year I cultivated more than 140 kilograms (more than 300 pounds) of wheat, but the crop yield was zero and even my house was destroyed because of flooding,” Alem said.

The food crisis has also impacted his family in a very negative way, he said. “What I earn now I spend on food and nothing else, but it is still difficult to survive. Before I was able to buy two shirts per year, but now I can’t even buy one.”

Mercy Corps is working to turn around this situation for villagers like Haji Mohammad Alem, who dream of sustainable farms and economic independence. We are helping Afghans feed themselves in the long term by making their farm land productive again. Our Afghanistan Agro-Business and Agriculture Development program is rehabilitating the drainage system in Imam Saib District. When drained, the soil of Imam Saib will be suitable for all kind of crops. From one hectare of land, farmers could produce 3500 kilograms (about 3.8 tons) of wheat. The project will reclaim more than 15,000 acres of land for cultivation.

When I asked Alem about the Mercy Corps drainage excavation project, he was very hopeful. “This project will return our previous life, we will again cultivate the lands, and my sons will be able to work on my own lands,” he said.

This dream is starting to look like reality for Haji Mohammed Alem. The seed of hope for a sustainable life has been planted now in his heart. This seed will grow and give yield when his fields are cultivatable again, and he can double the crop output from his land.

Alem plans to grow melon when his lands are dried and usable again. He estimates that he will earn at least 200,000 Afghanis (more than US $4,200) in one agricultural season. Melons are a famous fruit in Afghanistan, especially the melons from this district. Alem has promised us a wonderful melon party when his fields are drained and have become suitable for cultivation.