A Harvest of Hope: Roots of Peace Celebrates 10 Years

by Heidi Kuhn [ Roots of Peace ]

Roots of Peace focuses on mined farming areas and specializes in rebuilding these areas for farmers. To aid this process, the organization promotes the growing of sustainable and high-value crops. This article describes some of the organization's successful efforts in Afghanistan and argues the effectiveness of its approach for future mine-action efforts.

Roots of Peace is a humanitarian nonprofit organization that was founded in fall 1997 with a simple toast that the world go "from mines to vines." During the past 10 years, we have turned our vision into reality by replacing the scourge of landmines with the nectar of fresh grapes. Roots of Peace has recently partnered with the United Nations Environmental Programme to expand the definition of "landmines as an environmental concern"; to this end, a proclamation was signed aboard the Queen Mary 2 in the New York harbor, symbolizing our efforts to turn "swords into plowshares."

Our pioneering efforts to blend borders for peace have resulted in innovative partnerships for sustainable agricultural roots on former battlefields. Our initial footsteps into the new millennium began with a U.S. Department of State’s mission to Croatia with legendary Napa Valley vintner Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, who led the charge among California vintners to transform toxic minefields into bountiful vineyards in his homeland. Roots of Peace raised the necessary funds to demine in Vukovar, Ilok, Karlovac, Ciste Male, Ciste Velika, Biblijne and Dragalic–strategic zones where deadly seeds of terror lurked beneath the once fertile soils.


The author checks out the grapevines in Afghanistan in October 2006. All Photos Courtesy Of Roots Of Peace.

Roots of Peace's demine-replant-rebuild program model links members of the mine-action and development communities to orchestrate programs that allows for a more rapid and comprehensive return to stability and prosperity. Roots of Peace has fostered many partnerships over the years. Our partnerships in the mine-action community include the U.S. Department of States Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA), The HALO Trust, Mines Advisory Group, Croatian Mine Action Centre and the United Nations Mine Action Services, among others. We've also partnered and coordinated with many organizations and development agencies such as U.S. Agency for International Development, the Asian Development Bank and European Commission, University California, Davis, Afghans for Afghans, IF Hope, Catholic Relief Services, Planning and Development Collaborative, Development Alternatives Inc., in-country governments and many others.

The concept of restoring vineyards to war-torn lands was expanded to the soils of Afghanistan where fresh grapes and raisins yielded alternative livelihoods for farmers. Roots of Peace has removed landmines and restored vineyards that once provided the “rootstock” for the famous Thompson seedless grapes that children enjoy in their school lunches. It is with this spirit of reciprocity that we aspire to heal the earth from the perils of landmines.

Roots of Peace in Afghanistan

During my last visit to Afghanistan in October 2006, the Roots of Peace driver picked up our team at 4 a.m. to escort us to the Shomali Plain north of Kabulthe former frontline between Soviet and Taliban forces. Today the area is filled with vineyards, a direct result of six years of work by Roots of Peace.


Heidi Kuhn in Afghanistan with Mines Advisory Group demining director in October 2006.

The Shomali Plain once had some of the richest agricultural land in Afghanistan, producing over 40 varieties of grapes that were Afghanistans primary agricultural export to India and Pakistan. Most of these vineyards were lost during the 30 years of conflict and subsequent drought because landmines prevented farmers from returning to their land. The Soviets laid the bulk of the landmines to defend their airbases and firebases and to protect convoys moving along the main supply routes from northern Soviet territories to Kabul.

 Mines also played a major role in the conflict between mujahedeen groups. After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, the frontline was established just north of the city at Puli Soffian in the Shomali Plain. Ahmad Shah Massoud, a prominent mujahedeen commander, led the forces that were being pushed north by the Taliban fighters, who established themselves in the nearby villages, laying mines and booby-trapping houses, vineyards and irrigation canals. In 1998 the front was pushed further north and finally settled just short of Bagram Airbase. The front ran in a wide arc from one line of hills to the next, taking in a whole string of villages. One of the mujahedeen generals commented to a demining operations officer, My soldiers used all their imagination and experience to mine this village. You and your men will have to use all [yours] to clear it.

 As we drove north on that October day, we saw the silhouettes of donkeys carrying crates of fresh fruits and vegetables to market lining the streets. Innovative Afghan farmers who once dominated the landscape along the Silk Road continued to market their produce in hundreds of torn metal crates converted into small business stands. Yet, I was stunned by the number of men lining the streets waiting to catch colorfully decorated buses taking them to distant locations for jobs to feed their families. The desire for a better economy was evident, yet the current circumstances prevent the average Afghan farmer from working in his trade and competing in the world trade market.

 Nearly an hour later, our four-wheel drive vehicle headed up a winding road riddled with divots. Quietly, I prayed that our tires would not hit an anti-tank mine. Farmers emerged from their tents and herded their sheep along narrow paths marked by hundreds of red and white painted rocks indicating forbidden ranges in the mine-riddled area. The loss of an animal that strays into a minefield may cause an entire family to starve, so the Afghan sheep-herder must be aware of his surroundings at all times.

As the sun began to rise behind the Koh Baba mountain range, the grapevines were illuminated in golden light. I was warmed by both the sun and the knowledge that Roots of Peace has helped transform this region. A harvest of hope has been realized, as grateful Afghan farmers greeted us in the village of Shakeradara, thanking us for our support. Since our fund-raising efforts began in 2001, Roots of Peace has funded demining activities that have removed over 100,000 landmines and pieces of unexploded ordnance from over 40 vineyards, several villages, water wells and irrigation canals. As soon as a house or patch of land was cleared, farmers and their families eagerly moved back in, greatly relieved to finally leave the refugee camps to reclaim their homes and restore their livelihoods.

When Roots of Peace began working with grape farmers in the Shomali Valley in 2004 the majority of farmers were growing grapes that were ideal for sun-dried raisinsa good business 30 years ago. But during the years of civil conflict, the world changed; Afghan products lost their position in the world market and Afghan farmers had few means and little opportunity to regain it. Roots of Peace and UC-Davis extension experts solution to increase farmers incomes was to shift farmers from low-value raisins to high-value table grapes. One practice introduced to farmers was to convert a portion of their crop to green rather than brown raisins.  Another activity was to graft Taifee or Monukka varieties onto their existing Kishmishi vines and selling the resulting fruit as fresh grapes rather than raisins.

We also determined that farmers growing the small Kishmishi variety of grape could quadruple their income (from US$585/hectare to $3,285/hectare net revenue) by producing their grapes on trellises and adopting other improved agricultural practices.

We left the village of Shakeradara and continued on our journey through the Shomali Plain. The elders of the Qula Bayazid village were patiently awaiting our arrival and proudly gave us a tour of their newly established nursery, created with the assistance of Roots of Peace. Rows of grafted trellis vines, kishmish khana grapes, cherries, pomegranates, and various plant varietals were a living library of the once thriving Afghan Garden of Central Asia. Cuttings from these varietals were now being sold to neighboring farmers, allowing alternative agricultural livelihoods to thrive. This is the future for Afghanistan.

Following our tour of the nursery, the village elderan 80-year-old man with weathered skin, a white beard and turbanseated us beneath the shade of the trees and proudly presented a hand-carved wooden eagle as a symbol of gratitude from the Bagram farmers honoring Roots of Peace for restoring their agricultural dreams. My traveling companion, Shamim Jawad, the wife of the Afghan Ambassador to the United States, translated his words from Dari into English: We thank the Roots of Peace team for training local farmers who have doubled their income by working their ancient lands. We thank you for not abandoning us during these times of great challenges. If only your team could stay with us for two more years to train our farmers, then the Afghans may have the agricultural tools of knowledge to stand on their own two feet.

Shamim Jawad later communicated to me the significance of this proud village elder publicly presenting this special gift to an American woman as symbol of deep appreciation in the presence of other village men. This was the highest form of gratitude from a traditional Afghan man.

Achievements in Afghanistan

My trip to Afghanistan to visit our teams on the ground and personally see Roots of Peaces demine-replant-rebuild program model validated by successful farmers was exhilarating. Afghanistan is a poor country with a population of just under 32 million, a per capita gross domestic product of $800 (2004 est.), and a life expectancy at birth of just 43.77 years (2007). A majority of people suffer from low levels of nutrition, With 80 percent of the population living in rural communities and involved in the agriculture sector,1 the pathway for Afghanistan to peace and stability must encompass the development of all aspects of this important sector and include the participation of all the stakeholders. Despite the decades of war that have ravaged the country, I have witnessed that rural Afghans are determined to improve their lives through hard work and innovation.

Roots of Peace Program Model

DEMINE: Clear landmines and unexploded ordnance from farmland, agriculture infrastructure and access roads.

REPLANT: Assist smallholder farmers to move from low-value to higher-valued, perennial crops in varieties demanded by the local, regional and export markets. This includes technical training, nursery systems, post-harvest processing and association support.

REBUILD: Develop all aspects of the farmer-to-market value chain by establishing the links to processing and markets, and meeting international quality and phytosanitary standards.

Growth in the agricultural sector, which now contributes about 52 percent2 of the gross domestic product of Afghanistan, was meager from 1979 to 2004, a period characterized by heavy humanitarian and food-security efforts. Since the fall of the Taliban, development effortsRoots of Peaces initiative among themhave focused on improving the livelihoods of rural communities, transferring improved technologies to Afghan producers and assisting the Afghans in adding value to and marketing agricultural commodities. Improved agricultural technologies are quickly transforming the landscape and increasing the productivity and competitiveness of the average Afghan farmer, especially in the horticultural sub-sector, dominated by robust growth in the production of grapes, raisins, pomegranates, apples, almonds, pistachios, and other fresh and dried fruits and nuts. Access to improved varieties and disease-free cultivars and use of improved pruning techniques, trellising, drip irrigation and other technologies have rapidly increased the productivity for many years to come.

To take advantage of Afghan agricultural commodities, especially fruits and nuts, a high priority in the development of Afghanistan has been in adding value to agricultural products. Value-added agricultural activities in Afghanistan involve millions of people in the country. Relatively few Afghans are involved in agribusinesses with significant scale and mechanization, while most are involved in cottage industries or small-scale manual operations. Currently, the mechanized agribusinesses add approximately $16 million per year to GDP, while the cottage or small-scale agribusinesses add approximately $524 million/year. The current and soon-to-be-implemented developmental projects in Afghanistan will assist the agricultural sector, especially the horticulture and livestock sub-sectors, in growing by an estimated 6 to 8 percent per year, a growth rate necessary for significantly improving the livelihood of the average rural Afghan.3

Developmental efforts are focusing on decreasing post-harvest losses and product deterioration, integrating cleaning, sorting, and grading activities to meet the specific demand of the processors and buyers, improving storage and transport to maintain the product quality, processing and packaging, and marketing of agricultural products. For Afghanistan to reach its growth potential in commodity processing and packaging, much of the value added by agribusinesses is taking place as a result of increased mechanization and economies of scale.

Conclusion

Afghanistan's recent history has left it one of the poorest countries in the world. Agricultural development will go a long way to improve Afghan lives, and Roots of Peace is proud to help Afghanistan achieve its potential–one farmer at a time–to return hope to a country in transition. Bullet

Biography

Heidi Kuhn, Founder and CEO of Roots of Peace, began the organization in 1997. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley in political economics of industrial societies, Kuhn has been recognized by numerous awards including the Cal Berkeley Alumni Award for Excellence and Achievement, the National Jefferson Award for Public Service, the World Association of Non-Governmental Award for Peace and Security, and many others.

Endnotes

  1. CIA-The World Factbook for Afghanistan, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html, accessed 19 February 2008.
  2. "Background Note: Afghanistan Profile" U.S. Department of State Web site, see http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5380.htm.
  3. Executive Summary of Afghanistan Agriculture Master Plan, http://www.agriculture.gov.af/farsi/officails-file.htm , accessed 21 February 2008.

Contact Information

Heidi Kuhn
Founder and CEO
Roots of Peace
1299 Fourth Street, Suite 200
San Rafael, CA 94901 / USA
Tel: +1 415-455-8008
Cell: +1 415-948-9646
E-mail: heidi@rootsofpeace.org
Web site: http://www.rootsofpeace.org