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OFARIN's walnut project

The province of Khost is located in south-eastern Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan. The area is reached by monsoon foothills, so that - unlike most parts of Afghanistan - it receives sufficient rainfall. As a result, Khost was once richly forested with valuable trees such as oaks and cedars. Over a hundred years ago, the railroad network in British India was expanded. The precious woods could be sold there at a profit. The tree trunks were transported away in the form of railroad sleepers. More than half of the wood was waste. The wood was also suitable for building houses and furniture. In recent decades, it was mainly sold to the city of Kabul as firewood.

In the meantime, efforts have been made to preserve the tree population. A large German forestry project even tried to plant new trees. War and civil war had been raging in Afghanistan since 1978. Since then, there has only been deforestation. In the meantime, the mountains that frame Khost are bare. The topsoil is increasingly falling victim to erosion.

Some of OFARIN's employees come from Khost. They realized that a devastating ecological development was taking place. They suggested that OFARIN should do something about the disaster. In Khost and some neighboring provinces, there were pine forests that had not been cut down. The population preferred to harvest and sell pine nuts rather than cut and sell the trees.

Tribal structures prevail in Khost. The forests and the land belong to the tribe that lives there. All matters concerning the population are decided in tribal assemblies. Local authorities have already successfully carried out small-scale planting of walnut trees in cooperation with tribes. Walnut trees are also protected and cared for by the population because the annual harvest of nuts brings more in the long term than the sale of one tree.

Our colleagues suggested planting walnut trees in the mountains of the province. The Pasherli mountains in the Tani district were the fastest to lose their topsoil due to their steepness. Reforestation was most necessary here. It should be revealed that our colleagues belong to the Tani tribe who live there. This may also have influenced the choice of location.

In "democratic times", i.e. from 2002 to 2022, a foreign organization had already thought about reforestation with walnut trees, had imported 2,000,000 walnuts of varieties well adapted to the area and had persuaded farmers to set up nut tree nurseries. She wanted to buy the seedlings later. But when the Taliban came, the organization fled. OFARIN was now able to buy walnut seedlings cheaply.

A pit 50 cm deep, 60 cm wide and 150 cm long had to be dug for each seedling. This is no fun. The ground is overgrown with grass and interspersed with stones. We assumed that one man could dig three such pits a day. This pit is used to collect precipitation for their tree. The seedling is then planted 60 cm deep at the edge of the pit.

Digging the pits and planting the seedlings had to be completed by February 2024. In March, the saplings sprout roots and leaves. The Ministry of Economy and then the Ministry of Agriculture had to be convinced of the project; and then the provincial authorities in Khost. We were brave enough to plan the planting of 20,000 seedlings. A fully grown walnut tree takes up 1 acre, i.e. 10 m x 10 m. Our walnut forest should therefore cover a considerable area when it is fully grown. But when the plan was presented to the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, he thought that too few trees would be planted for the financial outlay. We decided to plant as many as 33,500 trees. The project was finally approved at the end of October 2023.

The digging of the pits had to be paid for. We had sent off plenty of money. But it didn't reach our account in Kabul. An intermediary bank refused to forward the money. We had to convince them that the money would not end up with terrorists who were on a list of bad guys. That took a good two months. When the money finally arrived in Kabul, all the bank accounts of foreign aid organizations were blocked. The Afghan authorities had scrutinized the financial conduct of aid organizations and discovered numerous embezzlements and bribe payments. When the Taliban came, many foreigners fled and Afghan employees misappropriated the accounts of their organizations. All organizations should now be investigated. The accounts were to remain frozen until further notice. But OFARIN had to pay its workers.

We had to find money by stealth and keep putting off the good men who were digging the pits. We had hired employees in Khost. The cooperation between them and the OFARIN headquarters in Kabul overcame all difficulties.

The project area extended right up to the national border. Militias were stationed on the Pakistani side, as insurgency movements were stirring against the government. One night, the Pakistani militiamen started firing into the air. They were uneasy about the incessant activity on the other side. Afghan border troops negotiated with the Pakistanis, but were unable to appease them. The Afghan head of OFARIN had to travel from Kabul with the chief financial officer to convince the Pakistanis that only trees were planted on the Afghan side.

On January 20, 2024, the last seedling was planted. It started to snow. A big final dinner was held for everyone involved. Our accounts have now been cleared. Everyone who worked on the project has received their wages. The seedlings have also been paid for.

Now we are curious to see how many of the seedlings will sprout leaves. OFARIN continues to supervise the project. Local employees make sure that the inhabitants keep their promises and do not, for example, drive goats and sheep into the area. The pits must be able to continue to fulfill their function as fluid reservoirs. Educational events will be held for the population. After another three years, as many nut trees as possible should be able to survive independently and produce their first nuts. Then the tribe will take over the trees and decide how to use the harvest.

Some of our colleagues had joined forces under the name HTPU and started their own initiatives in agriculture. They are already interested in oil presses that can be used to extract walnut oil. Walnut oil is a very fine edible oil and can also be used for skin care. Walnut oil sells very well in Germany. As a non-profit organization, OFARIN should have nothing to do with such profitable business. But colleagues of ours are likely to sit down with the local tribesman and consider how they can help the people there to achieve economic prosperity.

The planning and implementation of this huge project has earned OFARIN a lot of respect, even admiration. Other aid organizations are astonished at the comparatively small amount of personnel and financial resources involved. The provincial authorities praise the sheer scale of the project and the exact adherence to all schedules. But in a society where many families and clans vie for fame and recognition, the price of fame is always the envy of others. We hope that this is kept within reasonable limits.

On the other hand, there are many deforested mountains in Khost and the neighboring provinces that should also be planted with nut trees or other fruit-bearing trees. And the first thing that comes to mind for anyone thinking about such activities is OFARIN.

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