The development of Afghanistan's agricultural sector has been overlooked by the international community, despite the fact that roughly 80 percent of the Afghan population lives in rural areas and scratches out a meager existence from the land. In trying to rectify the existing situation, the international community would do well to look to Brazil for answers.
Real progress on agricultural reforms is critical for success in stabilizing Afghanistan. If we cannot assure Afghanistan's rural population access to a legitimate livelihood, rural residents will grow increasingly disillusioned, lose trust in the government, and, for lack of other options, support the Taliban. Through a thriving agricultural sector, we can win the struggle for hearts and minds against al Qaeda and the Taliban, reduce poverty, and rebuild and develop Afghanistan's economy.
Brazil, as one of the world's most agriculturally productive nations, is in a unique position to help Afghanistan revitalize its agricultural sector. Brazil has expertise on specific agricultural issues that Afghanistan needs to address. And unlike most of the nations currently involved in Afghanistan's reconstruction process, Brazil is a developing country itself. It has worked on development issues at home and built its own agricultural system from the ground up. It also has achieved impressive results, quadrupling agricultural production since the 1970s by bringing dry, formerly unproductive soil into cultivation, offering aid to farmers, and using improved seeds and irrigation methods.
The key to Brazil's success story lies in the quality of its research. Embrapa, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture's research arm, is heralded as a worldwide leader in agricultural innovation, responsible for more than 9,000 technological advances. Those advances have helped reduce costs, increase production, protect natural resources, and improve Brazil's self-sufficiency. Embrapa's soil research has transformed entire regions of Brazil. The Cerrado region in central Brazil, for example, was once a wasteland considered unfit for farming. Now, it is one of the world's most productive agricultural regions, on par with America's Midwest.
Embrapa has expanded its operations to 36 countries in hopes of making a global difference on agricultural issues. Embrapa now has operations in Angola, Ghana, Senegal, CÃ´te d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Benin, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and others. Embrapa could be similarly successful in Afghanistan, a country that has already proven it can be a breadbasket.
Traditionally, at least half of Afghanistan's GDP and 80 percent of its exports were based on agricultural production. But between 1978 and 2004, production decreased by an average of 3.5 percent a year as Afghanistan was buffeted by the chaos associated with foreign occupation and civil strife. Since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban from Kabul, some progress has been achieved. For instance, after plentiful rainfall in 2009, wheat production increased 127 percent year-on-year. However, Afghanistan still gets about half the yield per acre of important crops, such as wheat, in comparison to neighboring countries.
The devastated agricultural infrastructure is largely responsible for Afghanistan's agriculture woes. All of the Ministry of Agriculture's 24 research stations remain closed, and 40 percent of Afghanistan's irrigation network now is non-operational. Embrapa technology transfers could temporarily fill a research void, while Afghans undergo training in the areas necessary to restart the Ministry's own research efforts.
Actually growing the food is only part of the equation. Afghanistan has virtually no agribusiness in place. In addition, it is difficult for farmers to gain access to credit, and to get their food to market. In fact, for many farmers, the only crop for which they can obtain sufficient capital and have assured access to export markets is poppy, which is used to create a variety of narcotics. Brazil, on the other hand, has made huge strides in the development of agribusiness and export markets, and is the world's fifth largest producer of packaged foods. Brazil could provide critical guidance on adding value to Afghan agricultural products.
Afghan produce already has begun to find export markets in the Gulf States, India and even Europe. Its first, tiny, concentrated juice factory sold out its production a year in advance. But for Afghanistan to meet growing demand for choice produce -- especially pomegranates, apples, grapes, and almonds -- and to find new markets, we need Brazil's technical assistance in added-value processing and packaging.
The reconstruction of Afghanistan's agricultural base may well be a prerequisite for progress on all of the country's reconstruction goals. At the very least, a thriving agricultural sector would create jobs and reduce poverty.
The potential to make rapid advances clearly exists, but Afghanistan cannot do it alone. With a strong international commitment, including transfers of Brazilian technology and expertise, Afghan agriculture could blossom once again.
Mohammad Asif Rahimi is Afghanistans Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock; M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington DC; he manages Afghanistans non-resident diplomatic relations with South America.