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Mariam Raqib brings the gift of trees to Afghanistan

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Courtesy of Afghanistan Samsortya

(Read caption) 'Once we have our basic needs met we can go on to think about other things,' says Mariam Raqib of her efforts to plant fruit trees in Afghanistan. 'I’m not trying to dismiss voting or education, but ... a woman who worries if her kids are eating enough isn’t thinking about voting. We need to build a foundation.'

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Mariam Raqib remembers a childhood in Afghanistan where majestic Acacia trees lined the streets of Kabul and wheat grew in the fields outside her family’s home near the city of Jalalabad.

That is not the Afghanistan Ms. Raqib found upon returning decades after she and her family fled the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. Forests were felled, irrigation systems destroyed, and farmlands abandoned.

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Although war gripped her birthplace, Raqib felt compelled to return and reconnect with family for the first time in 2004. She’s been back several times since with another trip planned for late May.

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“This is my home that I loved and cherished and mourned. I am a part of this society. I realized I had to do something,” says Raqib, who now resides in the Boston area.

And so she launched Afghanistan Samsortya, a nonprofit designed to reverse decades of environmental degradation. Samsortya is a Pashtu word for revitalization, in this case, revitalization of the environment.

Located in the Surkhrud district, about 15 miles from Jalalabad, Samsortya’s first project was constructing a well. Local residents then set aside 20 acres of community land, within a 1,000-acre site, for a nursery.

She considers the organization a step in the walk toward democracy and human rights.

“Once we have our basic needs met we can go on to think about other things,” Raqib says. “I’m not trying to dismiss voting or education, but the reality is this: A woman who worries if her kids are eating enough isn’t thinking about voting. We need to build a foundation.”

Restoring Afghanistan’s forests and farmland will take millions of dollars, according to the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Livestock. For groups such as Samsortya to work they must be part of a wider effort, says Dr. Richard Byrne of the Centre for Rural Security at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, England.

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“You can’t expect people to just plant trees and sacrifice agricultural land. It has to be a symbiotic,” says Dr. Byrne, who worked in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. “Methodology is crucial. It has to be more than ‘Here is a tree.’ Demonstration plots, extension advice, and key innovators are all part of the mix.”

That’s why Samsortya doesn’t just hand out saplings, it teaches people tree nursery and agro-forestry skills, Raqib says.

The saplings and seeds come from Samsortya’s fundraising efforts here in the United States. A donation of $15 provides a family with a fruit tree and training. It costs $1,000 to plant 100 trees that provide shade and nourishment.

The trees will eventually help stop soil erosion and bear fruit, Raqib says.

Agriculture once sustained 80 percent of the country’s food needs and represented about 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Enabling people to grow their own food is essential in a nation where, according to the World Health Organization, nearly two-thirds of the population suffers from malnutrition.

There’s no question that Afghanistan lost large tracts of forest during the past several decades. Pinpointing the reasons for this loss is more difficult to ascertain, Byrne says.

Some regions were directly deforested for fuel wood, building material, and farmland. Other areas were cleared to deny cover to the enemy, and still other regions were affected because of increased irrigation or irrigation falling into disrepair, Byrne says.

Farmers across the country recognize the value of trees, not solely for economic gains, but also for soil conservation, Byrne says.

That’s why Samsortya is concentrating on shade and fruit trees, Raqib says.

Still she has no illusions about the work ahead.

“It will take decades to reverse the damage,” Raqib says. “But this, the replanting [of] trees, is something that can meet the needs of the people.

"It’s not fancy, but it’s immediate.”

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