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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, September 12, 2002 at 11:55AM :

Nature 419, 103 (12 September 2002)

Looting and vandalism threaten Afghanistan's seed distribution


[LONDON] Efforts to revive war-ravaged agriculture in Afghanistan are being threatened by the country's continuing lawlessness, participating scientists say.

"It is difficult to work effectively because some people with political objectives want to create terror and stop others being helped," says Nasrat Wassimi, a plant biologist who is field coordinator of an international attempt to help Afghan farmers (see Nature 417, 7; 2002).

Wassimi, who is based in Kabul, admits to fears that recent violence, including an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai on 5 September, could be a harbinger of renewed civil war. He says that looting, vandalism and the influence of local warlords are complicating the project's attempts to get seed to farmers for this autumn's planting season.

"You take two steps forward and one back," says Geoffrey Hawtin, director-general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome, part of the Future Harvest network of laboratories that is organizing the effort. "But the alternative is to do nothing."

In spring, the consortium delivered wheat seed to 70,000 farmers in 11 provinces. Now multiplied, this and extra imported seed is being redistributed in time for the larger autumn planting. The project's other priority is the rehabilitation of 22 agricultural stations that have been destroyed over the past 25 years.

Wassimi says that it is essential that traditional and imported varieties of seed are tested so that the most suitable ones can be planted in different regions. Afghanistan's traditional crop varieties are highly diverse, partly because of the many microclimates of its mountain ranges.

After the national seed bank was destroyed in 1992, Wassimi spent two years collecting seed from around the country, and hid it in basements in Jalalabad and Ghazni. But looters destroyed the collection last year, stealing the seeds' plastic containers. At the Darul Aman agricultural station, looters also stole water pumps, and vandals dumped stones into wells, which had to be redug.

Wassimi says he can understand the looting, but not the vandalism. "Whatever destruction you see in Afghanistan, a quarter can be attributed to bombing and shelling, but the rest is vandalism," he observes gloomily. "Some days I feel depressed, but I read a book on positive thinking. That, and wanting to help the farmers, keeps me going."

-- Lilly
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