Rustaq is a remote and beautiful district of Afghanistan. It is one of the country’s largest districts located in the northern province of Takhar. An hour's journey west takes you to the Amu River which forms the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The mountainous district is comprised of 200 villages with over 300’000 inhabitants. Majority of the population makes its livelihood off the land depending largely on rain-fed agriculture, making subsistence a challenge in the semi-arid climate. Reaching markets is difficult in a district that is so remote that it was one of the last outposts of resistance against the Taliban even after the latter had overrun most of Afghanistan.
Livelihoods under threat
But this beautiful landscape and its natural resources face pressure as more and more land is taken over by farming and grazing due to a high population growth and the lack of economic opportunities. Over the long term, these human activities are unsustainable. The deforestation and cultivation on steep hillsides results in severe soil erosion, which decreases soil fertility and agricultural yields. Pastures, which have to support more and more livestock, become degraded and provide less fodder.
Due to its remoteness, Rustaq has remained at the margins of government programs and international assistance. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is collaborating with the Swiss NGO, Terre des hommes (Tdh), to build a more sustainable future in Rustaq and improve the living conditions of its rural people through promotion of sustainable natural resources management practices and income generation activities for both women and men. The Livelihood Improvement Programme Takhar (LIPT) was initiated in 2007 and completed in September 2017.
Community mobilization for sustainable natural resource management
The LIPT program has covered over one third of Rustaq’s villages by mainly working around the two watershed areas of Nahristan and Chakar. To ensure sustainable natural resource management with active participation of community members, the program has established two Watershed Associations (WSA) and 20 Natural Resource Management Committees (NRMC) that have been officially registered both at the local and national levels with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. The WSA and NRMCs, with the support of the LIPT program, provide technical support and mobilize communities to undertake activities such as reforestation, terracing, gullies treatment, establishment of orchards and nurseries and construction of water conservation ponds as well as promotion of livestock value chains such as pasture management, establishment of para-vet centers, fodder banks, and construction of animal stables.
Shaida Rahimi, an agriculture specialist working for Tdh in Rustaq, explains: “People were reluctant of terracing their lands fearing that the government will take over their land. As a demonstration plot, we terraced a 10 jerib (2 hectares) piece of land. Now this year over 800 jeribs (160 hectares) of land have been terraced by people replicating what we had done, because they have seen the benefits. Terraced land produces much higher yields than non-terraced land. People have also started to cultivate higher value crops, such as chickpeas and watermelons, instead of wheat. Our job is to demonstrate to people how to do terracing, establish orchards and nurseries and encourage them to continue on their own to ensure sustainability of our interventions.”
The members of the Shaikh Salman village Natural Resource Management Committee have so far planted over 100’000 trees, including 91’000 pistachios, established 5 nurseries, treated 3 gullies and are protecting over 200 jeribs of land for grazing. “300 families (over 2’000 individuals) are living in our village. Only half of them have agricultural land and approximately 60% are raising livestock. Many of our youth either migrate to neighboring countries for work or join the national army. Despite facing many challenges, there is no government or non-government organization helping our village, except for the National Solidarity Program that constructed a road and the Tdh’s LIPT program”, says Fazluddin, Head of the Shaikh Salman Natural Resource Management Committee.
Diversifying livelihoods with fruit trees
Recalling the early days of the program, Shaida says “when we started our activities the farmers only knew how to cultivate wheat and barley. They didn't know it was possible to have orchards and fruit nurseries in their villages, Communities were reluctant to have orchards and fruit nurseries fearing their rain-fed land wouldn’t have a good yield. We gathered the local people and farmers at a mosque to convince them. Finally two farmers agreed and we established fruit nurseries with them. Following the positive results out of these nurseries, we received 50 requests from the communities and selected an additional 16 farmers and established more fruit nurseries. Since then, other farmers and villages have started replicating these nurseries and have established many on their own. In Gerdab village alone, this year the farmers have sold saplings with a total value of approximately US$ 20’000. Also, following the orchards we established in some of the villages, this year 250 orchards have been established by the people in rain-fed lands and over 32’000 trees have been planted”.
Veterinary services for better animal health
Given that over 50% of the families raise livestock in Rustaq, the project has established 5 para-vet centers covering 32 villages. “In the past when a sheep or a cow faced a disease people would slaughter them. This is not the situation anymore since we have a para-vet center in our village. The livestock owners visit my para-vet center for vaccination and treatment of their livestock”, says Hassamuddin, owner of the para-vet center established by the LIPT program in Bazar-e-Kotal village.
37 year old Hassamuddin was a tailor before receiving a six months para-vet training last year in Charikar district of Parwan province by the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan. In his para-vet center, he vaccinates and treats mainly sheep, goats, cows and donkeys. He charges 2-20 Afghani (US$ 0.02-0.20) per vaccination and 10-200 Afghani (US$ 0.10 to 1.5) for a treatment. He still manages to sew men’s clothes in his free time to have an additional income to pay for the living costs of his wife and 6 children.
Joining forces to improve income
Communities also receive support to establish cooperatives that generate income through sustainable livelihoods such as orchards, vineyards and fruit nurseries. The LIPT program supported the cooperatives in the establishment of a fruit cold storage as well as rehabilitation and construction of irrigation systems. These activities give cooperative members a vested interest in preserving Rustaq's natural resources.
Mawlawi Abdul Qahar, an open-minded Islamic scholar from Sar-e-Ghar village, is the head of Tolo Fruit Cooperative. The cooperative has 134 members and since its establishment a year ago it has established 134 orchards in 220 jeribs (44 hectares) of land and six fruit nurseries each half a jerib. The cooperative has also established a fruit cold storage as well as a shop for selling seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and agricultural tools to farmers.
“I don't have an experience in running a cooperative, but I had the opportunity to go for an exposure visit to India three years ago to exchange with and learn from the cooperatives operating there”, says Mawlawi Abdul Qahar. “All the products are sold through the cooperative to ensure a fair price for all farmers. Our ultimate goal in the cooperative is to contribute to our national economy by paying taxes from our revenues in the future”.
Mawlawi Qahar adds: “our village is a flood prone area; therefore, we need to cover as much of the rangeland as possible with shrubs to reduce soil erosion and increase fodder availability to livestock ensuring we have a better economy in our village in future to prevent migration of our youth to neighboring countries”. “We are willing to do anything for the development of our village, but we lack the required knowledge and experience; therefore, we need capacity building and technical support to achieve our goals”.
Creating income opportunities for women
To ensure women also benefit from the program’s interventions, the LIPT program has established 30 women’s groups to manage income-generating activities, such as greenhouses, off-season vegetables, strawberry cultivation, milk processing and vegetable preservation. These income generation activities have not only improved household nutrition, but have also resulted in a significant source of income of around US$ 150-250 per women per year.
Moreover, the fact that the women come together regularly, discuss and exchange experiences is an important aspect of empowerment. Several women’s groups have also started literacy courses on their own initiative. Books are provided by the Ministry of Education and voluntary teachers are found among the younger generation of women. In one case, for example, the daughter of a group member provides literacy lessons five times a week.
The targeted villages of the program now have the knowledge and capacity to continue farming sustainably and to work with government in the future on effective land-use and natural resources management so that future generations will inherit healthy forests, productive agricultural land, a greener environment and a better living condition.
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