US charity teaches Afghan farmers to grow grapes

March 16, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
A San Rafael-based charity that helps farmers in Afghanistan has been awarded the largest USAID grant to a non-profit in Afghanistan. It is part an effort to win the hearts and minds of Afghan farmers, and get them to grow food crops instead of opium poppies for heroin.

It is something Roots of Peace has quietly been doing for nearly a decade. Thousands of farmers in Afghanistan are voluntarily signing up to work with the Northern California non-profit after learning they can make more money growing grapes.

"These guys used to be Taliban. Now, they work for Roots of Peace," says Roots of Peace Executive Director Gary Kuhn. "If they are in a desperate situation, you have a perfect situation for civil unrest and they need to see that there is a way out of their hole."

The Afghan farmers are being trained by Afghans who were hired and trained by Roots of Peace agricultural experts.

"Poppies will generate for a hectare, about $2,100. So, grapes, 8 times as much. All the crops we're working with are making much more than the poppies," Gary says.

Kuhn and founder Heidi Kuhn say they are using that same market force to show Afghan farmers the enormous price bump they will get by switching to high-value food crops.

"They're going to have kids with bare feet, with $2 a day, to a point where they are making $16,000," Gary says. "They could choose how to take care of their families now."

"I think it's fair to say that agriculture is the top non-security priority for the United States government in Afghanistan," says U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Both Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Secretary Vilsack recently told reporters in Washington D.C. about a change in strategy in Afghanistan.

"We came to some obvious conclusions. Why were we spending more money on poppy erradication than we were on supporting agriculture," Holbrooke says.

The new philosophy has resulted in Roots of Peace being awarded a $30 million contract from USAID. It is the largest government grant ever awarded to a non-profit in Afghanistan.

"We planted over 1.2 million trees to date, and with these funds from USAID, we're going to be able to replicate that as aggressively as we can," Heidi says.

Roots of Peace is based in San Rafael. It has been working in Afghanistan since 2003, raising money to remove landmines and unexploded ordinance from 30 years of war and then helping farmers improve their crops.

They developed the de-mine replant model in the war-torn country of Cambodia in the Battambang Province. The United Nations learned about that success and asked Roots of Peace to help farmers in Afghanistan.

"We did that model and we did it in three provinces to start out and now we're active in 25 to 26 provinces there," Gary says.

That means Roots of Peace is now working in a majority of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan. So, why did the Kuhns get involved in the landmine issue? They started to become aware of it in the middle of hectic lives. They were raising four kids. She is a cancer survivor. Gary was in high tech, commuting to the Silicon Valley. And then, Princess Diana walked through a minefield.

"When Diana, Princess Diana, made her first voyage to Angola, I watched because I was aware of the landmine situation and how challenging it must be for farmers and families to try to walk with the fear of landmines beneath the grass," Heidi says.

The non-profit started with 100 Afghan farmers. The new USAID grant will let them expand to nearly 100,000 farmers.

"This is very good for all of the farmers in the country. If we do this, we will be rich in the future," Roots of Peace deputy program director Sultan Hamid says.

"I see a day when all the major production areas in Afghanistan have very minimal poppy crops there," Gary says.


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