September 10, 2013

In Afghan agriculture, fruits of labor uncertain

As a U.S.-funded marketing program is turned over to Afghanistan, concern grows that its modest success will wither.

By PAMELA CONSTABLE/The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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Hajji Hazrat Mahmad, 70, was persuaded by his son to switch to modern methods of growing grapes in his family vineyards, but taking financial risks is rare in Afghanistan’s rural society.

Pamela Constable/The Washington Post

Resourcefulness and diplomacy have helped the program overcome a variety of glitches and threats. After providing thousands of wooden grape trellises, officials found farmers using them for firewood, so they switched to cement posts. Field workers were threatened by the Taliban, which often targets Western aid programs and strongly opposes those that employ Afghan women. But Kuhn said Afghan intermediaries were able to reach a modus vivendi with local insurgents.

"At first we faced resistance from farmers too. We provided them with a lot of posts, but they were not keen on changing," said Abdul Razzak, a technician with USAID. "But slowly they have realized that the system works and they are getting better-quality grapes. Now they are coming to us for posts."


Still, for every enthusiastic beneficiary like Qudoos, a hundred farmers remain skeptical or unaware of the program. And the grape project highlights the difficulties facing even relatively successful development efforts.

In Shomali, years of conflict had turned most vineyards into charred ruins, and small farmers spent every penny replanting them over the past decade. Some said they could not afford to rent space in cold storage facilities, or did not trust traders to ship their crops and pay them back later.

As Kuhn and a group of visitors drove through Shomali last week, they passed endless mud-walled gardens with low-growing bushes bearing grapes that would start to spoil as soon as they were picked.

At one farm, where women covered in burqas were being taught to prune grapes, the patriarch said they would not be allowed to travel outside the compound to see the packing plant.

At a second vineyard, owner Said Zubair proudly displayed rows of new trellised vines bursting with grapes. Yet he also complained that he could not afford to rent access to the packing plant.

"We started from zero, and we learned that it is so much neater and easier to brace the grapes up high," Zubair said. "But I don't have the resources to go to the cold house, and the traders take our grapes on loan so most farmers don't trust them."

Another new outlet for Afghan fruit, the country's first juice processing plant in Kabul, has encountered graver troubles. In December, a suicide truck bomb left almost half the facility destroyed. Today, it is back in operation, and last week owner Mustafa Sadiq treated visitors from Roots of Peace -- which provided him with start-up support -- to glasses of melon, berry and pomegranate juice.

But Sadiq complained that he had difficulty connecting with far-flung small farmers to bring him their leftover fruit and had to import skilled technicians from India. He said he received neither sympathy nor help after the bombing from Afghan ministries, which he called corrupt and incompetent.

In the Deh Maskan market, Abdul Qadir said he knew that trellising and chilling would enable his grapes to last longer, but that he could barely afford $150 per week in fuel to irrigate his vines -- let alone invest more in a dream like exporting to India.

"If I had the money, I would put all my grapes on pillars and send them to the refrigerators," said Qadir, 38. "I inherited my grandfather's land and way of doing things, and I sell about 70 sacks here every day. It's enough to make ends meet, and it is a blessing from God."


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