Day 4: The Trip to Bamyan
Today we again woke up at 0430 hours to the singing of praises at the Islamic temple across the street from our compound. We needed to be ready for a 0515 hours departure to the U.S. Air Force base with our security team. We were joined today by Paul Brinkley, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense. (I had the opportunity to spend significant time with Paul over the course of the next three days.) Upon arrival at the base, we were briefed on the logistics for the day as well as what we should plan on seeing during the day. We then loaded our team onto two U.S. Army Black Hawks and departed for a one-hour flight to Bamyan Province through the rough terrain and mountains. Each of the Black Hawks was staffed with a pilot, co-pilot, navigations officer and two artillery troops in addition to members of the delegation.
Along the 270-km route, we passed over many valleys nestled between mountains along rivers that support the subsistence agrarian lifestyle in those communities. It looked much different than what we saw on Monday -- more vibrant and organized -- and once we arrived in Bamyan, the capital city, we saw that it indeed was. We were greeted by people who were waving from half a kilometer away; when we got closer we could see that they were smiling and laughing. The houses were in much better condition, and the roadsides and public areas were not littered with debris. We met with the governor of Bamyan Province, Habiba Sarabi, for about an hour, and then enjoyed a great meal showcasing the local fare. We learned that the governor understands the role of economic development in initiating efforts to improve agriculture, nutrition, health and education. Her administration has built a new college in the capital.
Another initiative she has started involves tourism, as the area sits at the western edge of the Himalayas and a very beautiful lakes region. Private investors have moved in and are constructing several hundred hotel rooms to meet the potential demand. The area also boasts one of the world’s remaining copper deposits, along with iron ore. There are a number of companies currently considering development in the area. The challenges remain huge, as there is no rail, no electric grid, no natural gas and very few quality roads. As mentioned, the capital is about 270 km from Kabul, and road improvement is under way, but it is still a four-hour journey by land. There is an airport built and operated by New Zealand as an air force base, but no commercial flights are currently available.
Following lunch, we visited some of the potato production and storage facilities that have recently embraced innovations across much of the province and of which the producers are very proud. Prior to this innovation, they were storing potatoes in mud and straw huts insulated by "cow pies." Today they have built sub-terrain shelters that are kept at a constant temperature, allowing them to prolong the holding period and reduce storage losses. An investment of roughly $150,000 in this improved storage system has returned more than $2 million in the first year. They have identified several other key measures they can make to leverage similar improvements in efficiency, yields and value to return greater profits to producers and the local economy.
Although a plan to improve seed storage has been implemented, they have yet to understand how to control humidity. For example, most of the seed potatoes in storage were all sprouted -- not a good condition. In addition, they have yet to implement treatment of the seed potatoes before planting. All field work is completed by hand; if you watch the video of me attempting to plow with an ox, you can tell that the entire system is dependent on hand labor. Planting and cutting of the seed is all done by hand; fertilization is all animal waste and not chemical weed or disease treatment. There have been little if any advancements in sourcing new genetics of potatoes that work in the area, which could substantially impact yield. Access to seed genetics, proven agronomics and technical skills, coupled with a coordinated supply chain, would produce substantial gains in productivity in Afghan agriculture and could result in increased export trade for U.S. agriculture.
Following our meetings, we visited the remains of the Buddhist Temple of Bamyan, built in the fifth and sixth centuries by Buddhist monks, that was decimated by the Taliban in 2001. It has been estimated that it will take $100 million to rebuild the temple and money has been pledged from countries such as Japan. But, following the recent earthquake and tsunami there, funding is unlikely, and the Taliban has threatened to destroy any reconstruction effort.
A final note about our return trip to Kabul on the Black Hawk helicopters: We all shared a vision of riding in a helicopter with the doors open, getting a great view of the scenery and feeling the wind -- maybe it was a memory we had from a movie. We also thought it would allow us to take better pictures. After some arm twisting, the flight crew agreed, with some reluctance. The governor’s staff had given us the coordinates of the lakes region, as it was supposed to be just beautiful. We handed the latitude and longitude to the crew, and off we went. We were already at more than 10,000' altitude next to the Himalayas when we began our search for the pristine, high-altitude lakes region. After winding our way through the mountains and ascending to nearly 14,500', we discovered the coordinates were wrong. By this time, we all nearly had frostbite due to the open doors, so we gave up on the search (see video).
Day 3: The World Food Programme
After our first night of rest in the compound, we met for our daily briefing at 0500 hours to discuss our plans, route and options if there was a security breach. At 6 a.m. we departed in our armored vehicles with security teams to go back into the city center and the U.N. World Food Programme headquarters. Upon arriving at their very secure site, we were greeted by the country leads for the Programme. I say "very secure," but two weeks earlier one of the leadership's five-year-old daughter had been kidnapped by the Taliban and was still being held for ransom.
Later in the day, 23 U.N. staff members in a Kandahar office were kidnapped by the Taliban. Personal safety is always at risk here, just more in some regions. The problem is you cannot tell by appearance who is friendly and who is not. Another threat besides car bombs that has been frequent of late is the use of Russian land mines. They are attached to large magnets placed on alliance forces’ and dignitaries’ vehicles, then remotely detonated by teams of motorcycle riders in congested areas in the city.
After leaving the U.N. headquarters, we drove 60 km north to a school in Parwan Province with about 300 students. Today the U.N. World Food Programme, with the support of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, would distribute 10 kg of wheat to each student at this school. I have never seen better behaved students nor have I seen poorer classroom conditions -- the highest technology in the classroom was a blackboard and chalk. After learning how to say "good morning" in Arabic, I made a point to try to meet each and every student. It was rewarding to see the children smile when shaking their hand, looking them in the eyes and saying good morning, and then handing them 10 kg of wheat. They would go home with enough wheat to feed themselves and their family for a couple of days.
After about an hour, we left and drove in our six-vehicle caravan to the Hofyan Health Center for mothers and children. Here we saw many of the 769 mothers currently serviced by this center receiving food, medical attention and vitamins and other supplements. Many of the infants who looked like newborns were actually a year old, which drove home the serious nutrition issues faced by these mothers and children. Hopefully this center, which has 34 other facilities, can continue to receive funding and improve lives.
Next we traveled to Women for Women International, a vocational training center that teaches basic skills, from handling and preparing food to starting a business in food production. The women’s eagerness to learn was obvious -- rooms that measured 3 meters by 10 meters held over 50 women each. It is clear that women are the true leaders in most Afghan households and keep their families at the highest level possible given the conditions in which they live. It is these women who will lead this country out of the current culture and into a lifestyle driven by economic growth supported by an improved agricultural, education and health system.
Here we distributed 50 kg of wheat to each woman to take home to her family, and again it was a pleasure to meet each of them and see the smile on their face at knowing they would have food on the table for a few days and were taking another step toward educating themselves. Next we traveled to the Afghan Women's Business Council, which teaches women best practices of how to produce food for their family and to sell.
Finally we returned to the U.N. World Food Programme center back in Kabul, where regional and Afghan leads debriefed us on agriculture production and nutritional challenges throughout the country. We learned about the challenges they face due to lack of knowledge, capital and a coordinated supply system, coupled with political unrest and terror threats. The U.N. people shared with us their challenges in raising funds, which are showing a shortfall for fiscal 2011 of nearly $260 million just in Afghanistan. This is partly due to changes in funding by the U.S., the largest contributor, and by Japan, the second largest, because of that country’s need to deploy capital domestically after the earthquake and tsunami in March. The question is, how will the gap in funding nutritional programs be met, and what will be the consequences if it is not?
My thoughts were that if all of Afghanistan’s agriculture, nutrition and health conditions were like the examples I saw today, it will be a long time before this country’s needs are met, let alone achieving sustainable farming.
Day 2: The Route to Kabul
Woke up in Dubai with a severe sandstorm still making its way through the country. We were greeted by our security, a retired Navy Seal who has served in most of the theatres in the region. As the morning passes, in the background we hear the sounds from the many Islamic mosques in the city. Then, as we make our way through the airport, we see the occasional man kneeling toward Mecca.
We board and depart Dubai on our Safi flight and arrive three hours later in Kabul. As we proceed north, the scenery becomes much more rugged, with mountain peaks nearing over 13,000' and the city of Kabul itself at over 6,000' altitude. As we approach the airport in Kabul, we notice the many military assets and support sites present in the area, as well as the movement of Black Hawk helicopters and gunships moving around the city, a place where it is supposedly safe. Upon landing, you quickly notice the U.N. support aircraft, U.S. military aircraft and many spent air frame carcasses littering the tarmac. As we taxi down the runway, we cannot help but be struck by the wealth indicated by the hundreds of private jets parked at the airport there. With the significant amount of investment taking place in the Dubai infrastructure, I imagine that the contrast with where we are going in Kabul will be stark.
As soon as we reach immigration, we are greeted by U.S. security forces. We’re split into groups of two and are assigned two security staff members, one being a medic. We leave in a convoy of five armored vehicles and make our way through the city. At times, our path leads us through U.S. bases that provide a high level of security and a faster route. As we continue on, we soon see the damage from the Russian conflict, the civil war and terrorist activity.
Along our route through Kabul, what we notice the most is people without hope, people who on average make only US$800 annually, where education is very limited and health care unreachable by most. You see many children without limbs as a result of conflicts over trying to find food.
Day 1: The Day of Departure
We depart the Atlanta airport at 10:00 p.m. on Friday evening to our first stop 15 hours away in Dubai. There we will meet up with Howard Buffett, Andrew Weber, Lou Pierce and Eric Crowley.
Our mission has numerous objectives. First, with the help of research compiled by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the Borlaug Institute, the Department of Defense and USDA, we will review the implementation of humanitarian and agricultural efforts in the war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These regions have upwards of 50% of the population engaged in agriculture, generating a significant licit GDP, yet malnutrition is an issue for more than one-third of the population. The average income of people in most rural regions is only two dollars per day.
Less than one-third of agricultural activity is mechanized, which means nearly two-thirds of field activity is by manual labor or by use of a donkey. Irrigation is available on about 25 percent of the acres across the region, but in many cases infrastructure has deteriorated due to lack of maintenance or military collateral damage. The value-added opportunities are significant if education, investment and supply chain management can be embraced. So my own goal over the next ten days is to gain a clear awareness of the situation in these two countries and work with others to formulate solutions for revitalizing lives in the region.
We arrive in Dubai at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday evening. We will spend the night at the airport hotel and depart early Sunday morning for Kabul, Afghanistan.
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