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New thinking needed to rebuild Afghan agriculture, UN-sponsored book says

New thinking needed to rebuild Afghan agriculture, UN-sponsored book says

Efforts to rebuild the rural economy of Afghanistan must start with a better understanding of the country’s complex history, social background and extraordinary resilience of the Afghan people in repeatedly rebuilding their livelihoods, according to a new United Nations-sponsored book.

“Reconstructing Agriculture in Afghanistan,” co-published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the British publishing house Practical Action Publishing, is an attempt to advance development theory for fragile states by putting food security at the heart of a twin-track approach that integrates short-term emergency response to longer-term food security interventions for sustainable development.

The impact of recent history is significant on a country where 85 per cent of people rely on agriculture and which witnessed the destruction of irrigation systems by the Soviet army occupying it from 1979-89 and the subsequent migration of rural workers, the emergence of the Taliban regime and a countrywide drought that blighted wheat yields as well as livestock, savings and land.

At the same time however, the book argues that the brutal state-building of the 19th century and the influence of empires then predominant in the region, chiefly Russia and Britain, have all helped shape the agricultural landscape, creating a diverse legacy of different ethnic and regional identities, local economies and administration, self-interest and illicit trade.

These provincial markets and networks help explain the “extraordinary resilience” of the Afghan people, in repeatedly rebuilding their livelihoods despite a historical backdrop of disruption and political instability, the book argues.

As an example of cultural traditions and their impact, one chapter discusses the often-misunderstood role of women in helping shape the agricultural landscape.

“The position of women has been a potent symbol of Afghanistan to the outside world,” co-editor Adam Pain said. “There is a perception that women are completely powerless, but women are more powerful and are a lot more economically active than people give them credit for, in agriculture and elsewhere.”

The book also examines the role of the opium trade, which dominates so much debate on a country that accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegal output. Any approach to eradicating the trade needs to take into consideration local economies and power structures, where limited access to land and credit have left many farmers with little or no alternative to opium cultivation.

Development initiatives are taking place across the country, including an FAO project helping villagers set up their own businesses providing high-quality seed to farmers, and another developing a national agricultural information network that tracks food pricing, crop yields and weather warnings.

The book stresses that it is through long-term planning and good government, local and national, that Afghanistan can push forward, while education is also crucial.