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Seeds of Change

Dec 16, 2012

A Dutch Kiwanian takes to the fields of Afghanistan to bring hope for the future to hundreds of families.

Dutch Kiwanian in fields

In a land where poppy fields flourish and the atmosphere is as harsh and unforgiving as the Taliban who rule parts of it, conditions are miserable at best, and they have been for decades. War, natural disasters, poverty, hunger and a lack of basic necessities rule the day.

According to the United Nations, more than 90 percent of the world’s poppy, which makes opium that can then be turned into heroin, is found there. The soil is ripe for poppy production. Farmers can bring in a lot of cash quickly with a harvest—and Taliban forces supporting and sometimes acting as drug traffickers collect tens, if not hundreds of millions in US dollars in taxes on the crop, according to several sources.

This is Afghanistan, and this is where Kiwanian Lou Cuypers focuses his attention to helping farmers take back their land.

Into the fields
Cuypers, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Midden Limburg Roermond in the Netherlands, travels to Afghanistan for about nine months a year to work with the company he founded, Blue Green World, to support and train farmers and communities on the use of new farming technologies and techniques. He has his work cut out for him.

Cuypers and his team are teaching farmers in Afghanistan about alternatives that will move them away from poppy cultivation and toward other crops that will be highly profitable and safer. Farmers there have a good, basic knowledge of agriculture, he explains, but they often have little land. Only about 20 percent of the land in Afghanistan is suitable for farming because of high temperatures and little rainfall.

“Besides these natural conditions, the scarcity of seeds and plants plays a big role,” Cuypers says. “Furthermore, there’s usually no money for fertilizer, and pesticides are not available at all. All this means it’s very difficult to grow a crop.”

And when farmers find it difficult to grow a crop, they tend to fall back to the predictable, convenient, reliable standby—poppy—even though opium poppy cultivation is illegal under Afghan law.

“Farmers receive an advance from the Taliban in order to buy seed and fertilizer and when the product is harvested, they get paid the remainder,” he says. “Most of the time this is the only way to cultivate anything and the only way to stay alive.”

Not every plant can compete with the profits farmers make on poppy, Cuypers explains. So finding alternatives isn’t easy. But not impossible.

Cuypers is bringing change to the farmers of the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan by way of saffron, seeds, fruit trees, vegetables and even chickens. Now, many of them have what they never had before: a choice.

Seeds of success
John Salam is a farmer in Tarin Kowt in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. He has lived here his entire life. He’s 51 years old and has a family—including nine children. When staff members from Blue Green World were looking for a small field to use for practical training, Salam offered his bit of land. His decision forged a relationship with Cuypers that eventually led to a working relationship and then to a new job. Salam now manages distribution and equipment fulfillment for an aid organization. His oldest sons now run the family farm, producing saffron and turning a good profit.

“For farmers here, saffron production is a great outcome,” says Salam. “It grows in wintertime, and that’s when there is more water available for the crop. Besides our own food that we grow, we need one or more crops that provide enough cash. It is good to have an alternative to poppy profits that generate sufficient money to pay for everything.”

According to Cuypers, saffron actually generates more profit per acre than any other crop—including poppy. Salam says the goal now is to “produce enough saffron to create our own brand on the market through our own saffron cooperative. Within this corporation, we want to package and sell the saffron ourselves. Whether this will succeed as fast as we would like is still unclear, but it is our dream. And Blue Green World will help us to do so.”

But Cuypers already has helped Salam and so many other farming families take those first steps to the future by helping them step away from the country’s top crop.

“Some people say we have to keep the poppies and the Taliban to retain the interest of the international community, but my opinion is that this is shortsightedness,” Salam says. “Indeed, both the Taliban and the poppy crop have so many negative aspects in it that you had better immediately get rid of it. Unfortunately, not everyone is in the situation to decide so. If your family has no income, no choice, then you might have to get money through poppy cultivation. The Taliban and poppy means no future and no progress in my eyes. We are waiting for this for a very, very long time now!”

Salam and his family, along with many other farmers, praise the help they’ve gotten from Cuypers and his company. But many of them probably don’t realize this Kiwanian from the Netherlands is touching the lives of so many more Afghan families. And he has a lot of help from his team of friends back home.

Education through farming
The Kiwanis Club of Midden Limburg Roermond is supporting Cuypers and his mission to bring change to Afghanistan. Club members help sell the saffron that’s grown in Afghanistan at markets in the Netherlands. The money they bring in then goes directly back to Afghanistan, to a tiny village called Robert Sanghi.

The Kiwanis club has established a relationship with this village, where efforts are focused on going beyond farming techniques and into education of another kind—primary schools for boys and girls.

“Kiwanis Midden Limburg has made an important contribution to the construction of a new school for the children of Robert Sanghi,” Cuypers says. “Initially there was only one school for 400 children, consisting of a mud building. Now there’s a wonderful school.”

But a building does not a school make. So a wall was built next to the school, allowing girls ages 1012 the freedom to move around freely, out of sight of male students and villagers. Toilets and sports facilities were built. School supplies—books, notebooks, pens, pencils—were purchased. 

“We feel that in this unstable part of the world, it’s important to invest in education, especially for children,” says Midden Limburg Kiwanis member Cees Grisnigt, who serves as chairman of the club’s Afghanistan committee. “They are, in fact, the future of Afghanistan.”

To help those children, the Kiwanians sell the saffron as part of the fundraiser for the school. But each sale came with a practical bonus.

“We sell small containers of saffron along with recipes for preparing food with saffron,” Grisnigt says.

Because Cuypers and his team regularly visit Afghanistan and the Robert Sanghi village, it’s easy to closely and accurately monitor the expenditure and the progress of all projects.

“We still continue with projects in the area because there are a lot of possibilities, and people welcome us with open arms,” Cuypers says. “Money is currently the biggest limiting factor for us. Because there’s much, much more that can be done.”

Story by Kasey Jackson; Photos by Niels Bohnen
Stories produced by KIWANIS Magazine

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