NRCS: Conserving in Afghanistan and Iraq
By Spencer Miller
Practicing environmental conservation on land ravaged by war presents unique challenges. Since 2003, 67 agricultural specialists with the Natural Resources Conservation Service volunteered as ag advisers in the Afghanistan and Iraq combat zones. Following a rigorous selection process, these volunteers received a month of training and then left for deployments ranging from three months to two years.
During these deployments, volunteers introduced conservation techniques in surrounding communities and established rapport and goodwill in the process. In addition to winning hearts and minds, in Afghanistan they helped local producers rebuild ag infrastructure damaged by decades of continuous war.
NRCS’ International Programs Division Director Melvin Westbrook oversaw this program since 2004 and played an active role in the volunteer interview process.
“Our ideal candidate has a broad, diverse background and strong communication skills, both oral and written,” Westbrook said.
These qualities are essential because the job is unscripted and requires flexibility, he said. They were especially important for the first group of volunteers who were trailblazers for the program.
“That first group had to wing it,” program analyst Herby Bloodworth said. “They pretty much just got on a plane and went over there not knowing what to expect.”
The program evolved in response to participant experiences and feedback, and formal training began in 2006. USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the agency that facilitated the deployments, gradually extended the details from three months to a year, allowing advisers more time to design conservation projects and gain local support. They also began overlapping the dates of details, so the outgoing advisers could familiarize and orient the incoming, improving continuity.
Not only was the agriculture different, but the local customs and courteousness were unique.
“They learned how to avoid accidently offending locals,” Westbrook said, “For example, in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s considered highly insulting to show someone the bottom of your feet.”
In addition to cultural training, each volunteer reported to a military base for basic instruction in firearm safety and operating military vehicles.
Once deployed, NRCS ag advisers had to rely on their judgment and initiative. They identified local issues and secured funding to start the conservation practices as well as how to integrate their ideas into the military missions, which provided the safe return of all those who volunteered.
“Usually they have to sell the military on their conservation projects,” Bloodworth said. “They work with local commanders to arrange transportation, protection and project funding.”
Volunteer Joseph Fuchtman served in the Army before joining NRCS and felt compelled to help out the Operation Enduring Freedom mission in Afghanistan.
“After 9/11, I felt the need to help in the War on Terror,” Fuchtman said. “This was my chance to contribute something without going back into the Army.”
Though frustrated by some of the challenges of his 2006 detail in Afghanistan, Fuchtman said completing an irrigation canal cleaning project and setting up the local equivalent of an ag research farm were highlights of his contributions. In addition to irrigation projects and research, advisers – like Fuchtman – have helped locals address many issues, such as soil and water quality and animal nutrition.
“The good outweighed the bad,” he said. Because of the skills and volunteerism of NRCS agriculture experts, conservation became part of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.