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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 9 | Oct. 7, 2004

UBC Education Alum Helps Restore Afghanistan Agriculture

By Erica Smishek

Proving that you can go home again, UBC alumnus Tooryalai (Toor) Wesa traveled to Afghanistan this summer as part of an international effort to revitalize his former country’s agriculture system after two decades of war.

At the invitation of the University of California Davis, Wesa trained 40 Afghanistan-native agricultural specialists (or “extension agents”) on issues related to grape growing, including use of chemicals, irrigation, picking, cleaning, storing and packaging. These agents will then train the country’s grape growers.

“It’s exciting to be there and to see the impact these kinds of programs are having,” says Wesa, who received his PhD in Educational Studies, with a focus on adult education, from UBC in 2002. “I’m more effective there in Afghanistan than I am here.”

Born in Kandahar in 1950, Wesa received a bachelor of science degree in agricultural economics and extension from Kabul University in the early 1970s and a master of science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1977. He taught for many years at Kabul University, advised the Afghan government, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and international NGOs, and served as the first President of Kandahar University for 10 months before leaving the country with his physician wife and three young daughters at the end of 1991.

After a period in Hungary and Switzerland, the family came to Canada and Wesa ended up at UBC. His work this year in Afghanistan (he had two other short-term assignments in the winter and spring) is a logical extension of his UBC PhD thesis, which focused on the Soviet occupation’s devastating impact on the agricultural infrastructure and, in particular, the educational component of agricultural extension. To collect data, he interviewed and surveyed expatriate Afghanis who worked in during the Soviet occupation.

“My UBC classmates were worried about my country and wondered why I wanted to pursue my PhD thesis on the agricultural extension system there. They didn’t think it would ever return to normal life and were concerned I would never get the opportunity to apply my experience there,” says Wesa.

“But I believe that without strong extension programs, there is very little hope for renewal. I believe in my people. I believe in my country. I thought that hopefully when I finished my PhD, I could go back and share my expertise.

“I was in the last stages of my thesis when September 11 happened. Suddenly there was international interest in Afghanistan.”

Following 9/11 and the subsequent armed conflict, there was also international demand for someone with Wesa’s agricultural expertise, his knowledge of the language, culture and traditions of the country, and his contacts. After teaching a course in UBC’s Dept. of Asian Studies in fall 2002, Wesa contacted various international organizations, educational institutions and companies about opportunities in Afghanistan. He eventually completed three short-term assignments in the country for Chemonics International, a global consulting firm that performs its work under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development and other bilateral and multilateral aid donors.

Wesa has been able to bridge the gap between local Afghanis and the non-Afghanis who are part of the international effort to revitalize the country.

“Those who are really working in agriculture or any other development sector -- they are welcome,” he explains. “But if they have religious or political issues on the side, people are skeptical and try not to get very close to them. If it’s purely a reconstruction issue, and if people are honest, hardworking and committed, the Afghan people will have respect for them.”

Agriculture is central to Afghanistan’s economy, with more than 70 per cent of the population associated with the sector. Prior to years of conflict and drought, Afghans were self-sufficient in wheat production -- the country’s main crop. Wheat must now be imported.

According to many in the international renewal effort, one of the challenges of reviving the agricultural sector and moving it quickly towards self-sustainability is to give farmers an alternative to poppy cultivation, which provides the raw material for opium and heroin. A recent report released by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime indicates that opium production in Afghanistan is estimated at 3,400 metric tons. Poppies are estimated to earn approximately eight times more income per hectare than wheat, with less water and fewer inputs.

“Farmers are not interested in poppies,” says Wesa. “It goes against religious and social norms. They want alternatives. If other economic sources are introduced to the farmer, the farmer will grow other crops. Right now, the warlords are forcing them to grow poppies. They are held hostage by the warlords. Farmers want a normal life for themselves and for their children.”

Grapes are just one of many horticultural crops that can provide a high-income alternative to poppy cultivation. Such crops address the country’s own food and nutritional needs while also producing something for the international market.

In addition to crop alternatives, most experts agree that restoring Afghanistan agriculture will take improved technology, capital, suitable marketing channels for surplus products, equal development and working opportunities for Afghan women, and protection of natural resources.

Wesa says capacity building is not a priority for most international organizations. But he believes educating extension agents and farmers on issues such as orchard, farm and family management, tree crops, and post-harvest technology is key to a renewal plan.

“You have to train people first, then bring the technology,” says Wesa, who knows first-hand how years of conflict have taken a toll on education and the very composition of Afghan society.

“The main problem is the lack of professional people,” he explains. “We lost three or four generations.

“Any child born since the first day of the Soviet-backed government [April 27, 1978; the actual Soviet occupation occurred December 27, 1979] has had almost no formal education. There is no infrastructure now. There are no classrooms. There are no libraries. There are no teachers. There are no labs. Kabul University, as the mother of all universities within the country, is nothing more than a high school, with limited qualified faculties, a lack of research facilities and academic journals, and few teachers qualified to teach foreign languages.”

Wesa intends to continue to participate in international renewal efforts in Afghanistan. And he hopes his own children -- now 18, 21, and 22 and all students at UBC (the oldest in medicine, the others at the Sauder School of Business) -- will travel there to share their expertise one day.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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