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Ag adviser works with the future agricultural leaders of Paktika, Afghanistan

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By Jennifer Van Eps, NRCS Washington

Caroline Clarin (bottom right), a wetland restoration engineer with NRCS, served as an ag adviser in

Caroline Clarin (bottom right), a wetland restoration engineer with NRCS, served as an ag adviser in Afhganistan

A wetland restoration engineer with NRCS helped create a training farming program.

A wetland restoration engineer with NRCS helped create a training farming program.

The service and teamwork of Caroline Clarin, a wetland restoration engineer for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Minnesota, and a dedicated group of Afghan agricultural experts provided over 9,000 people in Afghanistan with training in farming.

Clarin, one of NRCS’ ag advisers, was stationed at Forward Operating Base Sharana. She was in the Paktika Province in the eastern part of the country home to a severe lack of critical infrastructure and an extremely low literacy rate.

But despite the challenges, Clarin was able to help form a program to train Afghans in raising produce and efficient irrigation.

At first, Clarin said she was at a loss – she didn’t know what she could do in this foreign country with no knowledge of the local language, Pashtu. But eventually, she found a great way to help – forming the the Paktika Agricultural Training Program, which employed 14 college-educated Afghans to teach basic subsistence agriculture at the district and village levels throughout Paktika.

With funding from U.S. Agency for International Development, Clarin was assigned an Afghan assistant who had basic English skills, a bachelor’s in agronomy and a thorough knowledge of agriculture in Paktika. With the support of the PRT integrated command team and the battalion commander, they created this program.

Clarin said she was immediately impressed with the men who were selected for the program, because in addition to their agricultural knowledge and teaching skills, they faced intimidation in a volatile and violent environment without flinching. In Paktika, with an estimated 2 percent literacy rate, getting college-educated agricultural experts located in the districts is nothing short of a miracle, she said.

In Afghanistan “shuras,” or consultation groups, play an important role in the governance of districts. To help ensure the effectiveness and safety of her agricultural trainers, Clarin said her team needed to gain the trust of the local agricultural shuras in each district before they provided training there. To do this, the team arranged meetings with each group to lay the groundwork and share their plans for improving local agriculture.

“This was an opportunity to show people at the local level that the Afghan government could provide services that mattered,” Clarin said.

It was challenging, but she said they persevered. Beginning in 2010, they provided agricultural training to seven districts in Paktika. About 200 men attended each of the five courses, which she said was a great success.
“If you can find a way to make someone realize they are not helpless, they will learn to help themselves very rapidly,” Clarin said.

Initially, the team taught orchard establishment. Each participant received two apple trees, an apricot tree, an almond tree and a walnut tree. Next, participants were given the tools and knowledge to care for their orchards. Each participant received pruning shears, a pruning saw and lime and sulfur to make a fungicide. They were taught how to prune and care for their trees.

She said one of the most important trainings was vegetable gardening. Her team, with funds from the PRT’s Commanders Emergency Response Program, or CERP, purchased open-pollinated seed so the participants could save seeds from their gardens to plant the next year. Participants were given enough pepper, onion, tomato, summer squash, squash, lettuce, cabbage and broccoli seed for a quarter acre, which could feed a family of 10 for three to five months.

After the vegetable gardens were established, she said it was important to teach the Afghans about efficient irrigation systems. The agricultural training team taught them about bucket drip irrigation. Each participant received a bucket, 100 feet of hose and the connectors to construct a drip irrigation system for their garden.

But the assistance didn’t end there – once all the hands-on trainings were completed, the trainers stayed in each of the districts to function as an extension service. They answered questions and offered conservation advice. These teams directly helped 9,000 Afghans and indirectly many more.

In the spring of 2010, Clarin got the first glimpse of how well the training had paid off. A dam, located in one of the districts that received training, began to leak because the downstream slope hadn’t been compacted properly. She said the PRT was afraid the dam would breach and told the community to draw the water down. Fearing lack of water for their crops, the community refused.
While the PRT engineering team went to the Paktika governor to convince him to force the community to draw down the water, the team of agricultural advisers went into the community. What they came back with was a different solution – they would build a retaining wall. The PRT fully supported the idea and provided the funding for the stone and labor at a rate of six dollars per person per day to complete the project.

After the PRT saw what the community could do with the help of the agricultural advisors, they funded additional projects at a rate of 70 percent – with the community providing the additional 30 percent in labor.

One of the biggest struggles for all soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan was the constant threat of insurgent attacks in the form of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, embedded in the roads. Village leaders were so interested in making a difference in their communities by increasing water availability and quality with agricultural projects that they provided transportation and escorts for the ag advisers to assist with safety during travel through the dangerous areas to the villages.

Additional projects included:
• Lining canals to increase irrigation water availability through a reduction in seepage loss;
• Constructing flood walls to prevent erosion during flood events;
• Lining of a village retention pond, lining access to canals for doing laundry;
• Developing springs; and
• Creating spillways to prevent failure of canal walls during flooding.

Clarin said she was overwhelmingly proud of how far her team had come and all they had accomplished.

“Watching these young men realize the change they could make, that their education was valuable, they could make a difference in the community and could partner with the local government and police was the best thing for me,” she said.

But it isn’t the 9,000 plus Afghans that she helped get agricultural training, or even the 24 community projects that were undertaken, that Clarin said she is most proud of. After returning to the United States, she received a Facebook message from one of the trainers she’d worked with during her two-year deployment. He told her that he was appointed the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, or DAIL, in Paktika.

“That is when I knew it was all worth it,” said Clarin. “These amazing trainers were becoming the leaders of tomorrow.”