It could be hard to imagine how a country like Afghanistan, so historically and culturally isolated from our own, might be similar to ours in any way.
Seeing Afghanistan for a year from behind the two-inch-thick armor plated steel door and three-inch-thick glass windows of an up-armored Humvee, Brian Sorenson had constant reminders of war all around.
But when the Humvees were parked, the incidental factors of time and place were stripped away, and the Afghan people were encountered face to face, Sorenson discovered that the gracious and hospitable people who live there have much in common with your own neighbors here in Delta County.
These people live in an agriculture-based economy. They are faced every day with the problems of geography, weather, and scarce resources of soil, seed, and water. In their environment, the country’s rural villagers and farmers have learned to survive by adapting their local economies to the harsh facts of physical reality that surround them.
The country still embraces a rigid tribal hierarchy and a culture locked in centuries-old ways. And there is political chaos and rampant government corruption that work to keep the lives of rural Afghan farmers on a razor’s edge of day-to-day survival.
Sorenson, the district conservationist with the Delta NRCS office, went to Afghanistan as part of a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) with the mission of helping lift Afghan villages up from their subsistence level of agriculture.
“We assessed flood damage to a medical clinic, evaluated school projects and bridge construction proposals, did watershed evaluations for water retention storage reservoirs, collection systems, pipelines and stream bank protection,” Sorenson said of the work he and other specialists on their PRT did.
It was not a military assignment for Sorenson and his colleagues from other professional fields. But the PRT was escorted by armed military personnel wherever they went, and the reminders of ongoing war were constant. The team was in military presence from the time they received preliminary training at Fort Bragg, N.C. While in Afghanistan they stayed at military forward operating bases when touring remote regions of the country.
Sorenson characterizes his year working with the respectful and appreciative rural Afghan village people as a “step back in time.” It lasted only a year during 2008-09, yet it transported him into a world barely advanced beyond the cultural ways of Biblical patriarchs. In a landscape so austere and unyielding, where literally nothing is allowed to be wasted, Sorenson explains that he came to a new appreciation of Western prosperity. But along with that came apprehension for the often wasteful ways of the West.
“Over there, nothing goes to waste. They find a use for everything. They have to, just to survive,” Sorenson explains. “Even the empty plastic beverage bottles we threw out, they would scavenge and reuse.”
And while the most basic fundamentals of rural agricultural life – land, seed, and water – are the same world around, “The Afghan people have a whole different perspective on life than we do,” Sorenson observed. “They live in concert with the earth.” Sorenson said. Encountering first hand their way of life so intimately tied to the rhythms of nature was an experience he described as life changing.
The principal objective of Sorenson’s PRT was to try and help the remote villagers create the rudiments of a market based economy for themselves. With the ability to accumulate any kind of capital reserve, even of storing a season’s production of seed for the next season, they would have the beginnings to rise above their subsistence level.
“We also conducted overall agricultural assessments for crop rotation and residue management systems, quality seed increase multiplication programs and storage facilities, all with the objective of promoting a local self sustaining market-based economy,” Sorenson said.
Even with such bare essentials as viable food storage facilities, the villagers could be able to begin creating the economic base for themselves above subsistence level, and perhaps end the scourge of corrupt officials who are able to prey on their poverty.
“These villages are so remote and isolated that the people essentially live entirely removed from the Western influences commonly seen in other parts of the world,” Sorenson said. The closest comparison to this experience would be likened to traveling into the land of the ancient Anasazi people with dwellings built high on the steep slopes of the sides of canyons, or perched atop rock outcrops within mountain valleys. The exception being that these are living, thriving inhabited villages that have been here for thousands of years with little or no change in living conditions or infrastructure.”
The Afghan people are an agrarian society and subsist almost entirely from agricultural production, Sorenson explained. “Farmland is the most valuable resource in the country where only 12 percent of the land is arable.”
As in Delta County, water is a critical issue. “Often, perennial streams are absent for irrigation. So, villages use centuries old systems of ‘karezs,’ or subterranean canals that transport snow melt from mountain peaks to small farm plots in the valleys.”
The U.S. military and teams of civilian advisors like Sorenson are helping the Afghan people defeat their internal Taliban oppressors by giving the people tools of economic independence to live in freedom on their historic homelands.
blog comments powered by Disqus