The accidental forest: A (happy) unintended consequence in Afghanistan

January 14, 2020
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

People in the international aid community spend a lot of time figuring out what the potential consequences of their actions might be, in the quest to “do no harm.” But sometimes unintended consequences can be good.

A displaced family in Faizabad, Afghanistan in 2002.

A displaced family in Faizabad, Afghanistan in 2002.

“I don’t think any of us ever imagined it would turn into this.”

“We just wanted to create a vegetable plot for seeds, to help local women diversify the diet of their kids,” recalls Regine Kopplow. “I don’t think any of us ever imagined it would turn into this.”

Regine Kopplow, 2002.

It was 2002, and Northeastern Afghanistan was in the middle of a serious hunger crisis, brought on by a failed harvest and complicated by fighting and the post 9/11 coalition aerial bombing campaign. A team from Concern was on the ground, running emergency nutrition programs to support thousands of desperate families facing severe food shortages. As an experienced Nutritionist, Kopplow knew that providing immediate food aid was just part of the solution. “We began promoting home gardens and wanted to distribute seeds to the women we were working with,” she says.

Around the same time someone had suggested the novel idea of creating a tree nursery, which could provide a source of income to women who had little or no other means of earning money. This part of Afghanistan is heavily deforested and the demand for young trees and saplings was high. A vegetable nursery could be incorporated into the site, effectively delivering a double return.

“No donor was willing to invest in a tree nursery”

“There was a lot of debate about putting effort and resources into something that was not directly connected to the emergency situation we had come to address,” according to Regine. “No donor was willing to invest in a tree nursery, and in the end we used Concern internal funds.”

Land cleared to create a tree nursery in Badakhshan, Afghanistan.

Land clearance for the nursery. Photo: Regine Kopplow

And so it began. The first task was to clear and prepare the land. “I remember being blown away by how big it was — it was huge!” Regine says. “There was no heavy equipment available, so all of the work was done by hand, with picks, shovels and wheel barrows.”

Soon, the first batch of tree saplings arrived, then the vegetables were planted, and a 10 hectare stretch of bare, rocky land on the banks of the Kokcha river slowly started to transform into something very different.

Women tending to tree saplings at the Concern nursery in Faizabad, Afghanistan, 2013

Women tending to tree saplings at the Concern nursery in 2013

The change

Over the following years, that initial investment, which had been such a source of debate, began to pay off. Hundreds of women earned income from cultivating and selling the saplings, and soon mini-plantations and forested areas were springing up all around the surrounding hillsides and valleys, providing shelter and timber for farming families. The vegetable plot was churning out seeds for carrots and kale and all sorts of other nutritious varieties for use by local mothers, and some local men established a beekeeping project to take advantage of the newly created micro-environment. Around the site poplar, pine, juniper, maple, and assorted fruit trees were maturing, providing shelter and protection from the harsh winds. This place was slowly morphing into something unexpected.

Beekeepers in Faizabad, Afghanistan

Beekeepers ply their trade

A potato field in Afghanistan

Potatoes under cultivation at the Concern nursery in 2013.

An Afghan student siting on an abandoned piece of military hardware.

A student from the University of Badakhashan finds peace by the riverside.

Fast-forward to summer 2019 and groups of students from the neighboring university wander along sun-dappled corridors formed by tall trees, engaged in academic debate and studying for upcoming exams. By the waters of the Kokcha, a young man sits reading poetry atop a long-abandoned and overgrown Soviet military vehicle, a relic from one of the many conflicts this place has seen come and go over time.

The nursery has grown up to become a forest.

A wooded area in Faizabad, Afghanistan

A higher power

Families come here at weekends to relax and enjoy a picnic and play games. It’s an oasis of calm, providing escape from the struggles of everyday life — in what can be a very difficult and sometimes violent environment. Beyond the face value of scrubbing carbon from the air or sacrificing themselves to human demands for fuel and construction, trees have a higher power. They make people happy. In recent years, numerous experimental psychology studies have linked exposure to nature with a heightened sense of well-being.

Pine needles

Concern has moved on from here, higher into the mountains to work on different projects with other communities, and the forest and nursery are now in the hands of the local government and community. Local women still make money from raising and selling saplings and vegetables, and honey bees continue to ply their trade among the branches of the towering pine trees and poplars. The legacy of that contested decision from nearly two decades ago lives on here in the golden silence of the woodlands, rippled by the gentle rustle of leaves and the cooing of turtle doves.

Students in Faizabad Afghanistan

Students at the tree nursery in 2019.

“Having a vision at times when there is little hope is crucial”

Ironically, Regine Kopplow left Afghanistan before the main planting of the site took place and never got to see the project mature. But today, looking at photos of the forest, she can’t help but feel a sense of pride. “This story should encourage us to look beyond what we see today. It confirms that it is right to believe in change and that change is actually possible — even in the context of Afghanistan, where we are more used to negative news than hearing success stories. Having a vision at times when there is so little hope is crucial.  I am proud that I was part of initiating it, but also proud of the Afghan people who made this possible, and continue to value and protect their environment.”

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A former tree nursery in Faizabad, Afghanistan