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Agriculture project helps bring 'PEACE' to Afghanistan

KABUL More than 80 percent of Afghanistan's livestock production, consisting primarily of sheep and goats with a smattering of cattle, originates with that country's traditional nomadic herdsmen, the Kuchi.

For 2 years, the Texas A&M System has been involved in a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded agriculture project to help the Kuchi (pronounced koo-chee), who number about 3 million throughout Afghanistan, improve their livelihood.

The Pastoral Engagement, Adaptation and Capacity Enhancement, or PEACE, project was created to help the Kuchi improve livestock production, manage rangeland and natural resources, and use modern technology to their advantage. The project also helps them address tribal clashes by using conflict resolution techniques.

"There's a renewed emphasis in Washington toward putting time and resources, including non-military assistance, into Afghanistan to help stabilize that country and secure the future for the Afghan people," said Dr. Edwin Price, director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. "The PEACE project has been working toward that goal, as well as helping secure our own peace by improving grass-roots relations with the Afghans."

Drs. Catherine Schloeder and Michael Jacobs, research scientists with Texas A&M's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, have been working on the project since the fall of 2006. The pair previously spent almost a decade working with a non-profit organization helping nomadic herders in Ethiopia and communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"We chose Catherine and Michael for the PEACE project because they were familiar with working in challenging environments and had the scientific and social background to help the Kuchi," said Dr. Steven Whisenant, head of the college's department of ecosystem science and management.

Whisenent said other project partners include the Texas AgriLife Research Center for Natural Resource Information Technology, University of California-Davis, Mercy Corps, Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Temple, and the Borlaug Institute.

"Efforts like the PEACE program require collaborations among many individuals," Whisenant said. "The breadth of expertise within the university and Texas AgriLife Research make it possible to bring novel ideas to solve real-world problems."

"Basically what we've been doing through the project is helping the Kuchi reduce the variety of risks associated with their livelihood, producing and selling livestock," said Jacobs, who serves as lead researcher and chief of party for the project.

Years of conflict and drought have severely affected Afghanistan's livestock sector, Jacobs said. Improving it depends on the Kuchi developing better rangeland management techniques, improving their animal production practices and enhancing how they market their livestock.

"Another very important aspect of the project's risk-management work in Afghanistan is providing help with conflict resolution," Jacobs said.

For years, the Kuchi and Hazara have had conflicts over access to important rangelands in four provinces of Afghanistan. Rangelands constitute about 75 percent of Afghanistan's total land area and are critical to supporting irrigated agriculture in Afghanistan's lowlands.

Project personnel, working in cooperation with one of President Karzai's advisors and the Independent Department for Kuchi Affairs, have provided a number of conflict resolution workshops to Kuchi and Hazara tribal leaders. Workshops address effective communication, mediation, negotiation and additional skills and techniques for settling disputes.

"The conflict resolution portion of the project has been a very important and successful effort, and the Kuchi have employed the techniques they have learned to handle conflicts at a local level," Jacob's said.

Livestock issues also are addressed through the project by way of "herder alliances" and by facilitating shuras at a provincial level. Shuras are traditional informal courts held by Afghan clan and tribal leaders to address and resolve issues of community interest.

The project has also been successful at employing new technology to help the herders make better decisions regarding their livestock, added Schloeder, a research scientist working in the capacity of pastoral ecologist.

"We've been collecting data to monitor the quality and quantity of forage on Afghanistan's rangelands, Schloeder said. "We're showing the Kuchi how modern technology can facilitate the decision-making process with respect to when and where to move their livestock, and when to sell them."

Schloeder said one of the most important new technologies being employed through the project is a livestock early warning system. The system, developed by rangeland and livestock specialists from Texas A&M, was first used in conjunction with another USAID-funded project serving East Africa and Mongolia. The work of adapting the system's technology is being done by Schloeder and other scientists from Texas A&M and AgriLife Research.

The system uses satellite-based weather technology in combination with field data to provide information on forage conditions for livestock, enabling pastoral communities to reduce the negative effects of weather, especially drought. It provides timely information on rangeland productivity and can predict the anticipated quantity of rangeland forage as long as 90 days in advance.

Due to security issues and other limitations, data collection has been focused on 10 provinces in the central highlands and northern portion of Afghanistan, Schloeder said.

"Using data from the early warning system, Kuchi herders will be able to better protect their livestock and understand where and when rangeland conditions are changing and what they need to do to adjust to those changes," she said.

Since October 2006, the project has been collecting rangeland information in accessible provinces during the forage growing seasons, Schloeder said. Sufficient data has now been collected to make predictions for the Kuchi to use for this coming growing season, March through July.

Data collection has been accomplished with the help of Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, graduates from the Kabul University and Kuchi herders and leaders.

Schloeder said another important piece of technology introduced through the project has been near-infrared spectrometry. This technology is being used to assess the nutritional quality of Afghanistan's rangeland vegetation, producing a "spectral profile" of crude protein and digestible organic matter in forages faster and cheaper than more traditional analytical methods.

"Since we've been in Afghanistan, we've engaged Kuchi leaders and herders and over time have gained their trust," said Jacobs. "They are very appreciative of our help and have been cooperating with us and working hard to build up the Afghan livestock sector. This is one of the true success stories coming out of that country."

"The economic and social benefits of international agriculture programs like these are important to the stability of the countries they serve," said Price. "Dr. Norman Borlaug, for whom our institute is named, has said many times that the destiny of world civilization depends upon providing a decent standard of living for all mankind. And a decent standard of living is what the PEACE project is helping the Kuchi achieve."


Contact: Dr. Steven Whisenant
Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

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