NIMBLA BAGH, Afghanistan -- Abdul
Hakim can't remember exactly how old he is, but he's
old enough to have fathered three sons and a daughter and to
have seen his children's children grow up tall and straight
as poplars. His smile is a spider web of wrinkles and he has
only a few teeth left, but his eyes dance like a boy's as
he tries to answer a request for details about his gardens.
"My father was a gardener in King
Amanullah's time, and his father before him," he
explains, walking through a dusty garden populated with a few
loquat and apricot saplings. Fifty years ago, "King
Zahir Shah asked my father to put his son to work here as well.
I've been here ever since, and my youngest son works with
The place is Nimla Bagh, in
Afghanistan's lush eastern province of Nangahar. An FAO
mission has come to the nursery garden the Organization helped
to re-establish over ten years ago to assess the damage wrought
by dwindling resources, drought and war. It is one of almost 100
such gardens FAO set up or supported to promote agricultural
diversity and commercial fruit production.
Between 1989 and 1998, FAO led the way in the
establishment of nurseries and rehabilitation of traditional
irrigation systems across the country. In neighbouring Kunar
province, which was almost entirely depopulated by Soviet
attacks in the 1980s, the valleys returned to life within a few
years, and agricultural production boomed. There, the tiny
nursery of Asman Bagh nestles amid mountain peaks, guarded at
night by teenagers with kalashnikovs.
Nimla Bagh is special, says Anthony Fitzherbert, the
mission leader and FAO's former programme manager in
Afghanistan. It's not just that the garden survived Soviet
bombardments. Nor that farmers come from miles away to buy young
saplings from Abdul Hakim.
Gardens of earthly delights
"Nimla is the living legacy of
centuries of refined and dedicated horticulture," he
says. "These gardens were said to have been laid out as
a classic Persian 'chahar bagh'-- the re-creation of
Eden, with its four quadrants and four rivers -- by Emperor Shah
Jehan in the 1630s. But I think they were the gardens that
Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur, the first Mogul emperor, referred to
a hundred years earlier in his memoir The Baburnama."
Traces of that former glory remain in the
avenues of cypresses and formal arrangement of flowerbeds and
fountains. But the once-sharp edges of the borders are shadows
under the dust, and the water is sluggish and green.
In happier days, Afghanistan was a paradise of
orchards and vineyards, spice gardens and forests. Sophisticated
irrigation systems watered crops and were channeled into
beautiful pleasure gardens for the leisure classes. In the
1960s, high-value horticulture and dried fruit provided
Afghanistan with almost half of its export revenue. By-products
of orchard fruits, such as pomegranate rind and walnut husks,
were used to dye the brightly coloured carpets for which the
country is famous, along with madder root, which produces the
unique and varied red hues prized by buyers.
Core values of economic success
Trees are also an essential part of
recreation and spiritual guidance in Islamic tradition. No house
in rural Afghanistan is complete without a mulberry tree, often
covered in vines, which provides fruit and shade to the men
gathered on carpets on the dera, or rest area, in front of the
Tradition aside, the nurseries
are an important vehicle for one of FAO's key goals in
Afghanistan - the privatization and decentralization of the
agricultural sector. "We adopted a simple strategy of
establishing at least two nucleus nurseries in every
province," says Mr Fitzherbert. "These were
run by the Government and were stocked with mother trees bought
from abroad. The budwood from these was sold to private
nurseries, which we helped to set up."
Moreover, in the first years after the Soviet forces
left, the trees became an important symbol of endurance.
"When people plant trees it means they intend to
stay," says Mr Fitzherbert. "Some of the
nurseries were set up as economically viable entities, but some
were set up to re-orchard Afghanistan and undo the years of
In the coming months,
FAO will be undertaking a nationwide horticultural survey and a
study of potential export markets. Immediate assistance will be
given to the most important orchards, but the long-term recovery
of the sector depends on water, says FAO horticultural
specialist Noorgul Hamzakheyl. "If the drought ends,
then Afghanistan's gardens have a future," he
In most of Afghanistan
today, the gardens have been decimated by drought. All that
remains of the extensive pistachio forests of Badakhshan
province, for example, are a few trees standing stark against
the mountains. "We have destroyed an economic
resource," says the provincial Acting Governor,
Muhammed Shah Zijhum. "And bare mountains mean more
floods and soil erosion."
won't be easy to persuade desperate people to put aside
their immediate needs and preserve their trees. But Mr
Fitzherbert is confident that once a few orchards become
established, economic success as well as tradition will prevail.
Abdul Hakim lost a son to the war against
the Soviets. But his son's son works with him in the
garden, the leisure classes have been replaced by village
children playing in the fountain and his country is finally at
peace. "It takes me two days to count all the trees in
this garden," he says. "My grandson counts
beside me, and that gives me hope."