January 19, 2006
Forestry professor provides expertise to Afghans
CARBONDALE, Ill. -- In Afghanistan, you can't see the forest — just some trees.
"Afghanistan was only about 3 percent forested originally, but that's probably down to less than 1 percent now," said John W. Groninger, an associate professor of forestry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
"Centuries of degradation caused by overgrazing and other mismanagement, a series of droughts, 25 or so years of war, and underhanded dealings have removed a lot of these forests. It will take time and some help to bring them back."
Groninger was in Afghanistan Oct. 24 to Nov. 3 as part of a joint, federally funded effort by SIUC, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Agricultural University aimed at rebuilding the agriculture program at Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif. Balkh has three agriculture departments: plant science; animal science and forestry/horticulture.
Forestry as Groninger has known and practiced it does not exist at Balkh. Where SIUC lies near vast tracts of state and national forest — the heart of campus even contains a stand of trees called Thompson Woods — would-be Balkh foresters would have to travel several hundred kilometers to see anything even remotely resembling what Americans would call a forest.
"The chair of the forestry department has never set foot in a closed-canopy forest in his own country — it's so far away, and there's no travel money to get to it," Groninger said.
"The most remote parts of the country are where the forests are, and they're also the areas that still have warlords and Taliban remnants, so there's a safety issue. Plus they haven't been swept for mines yet. Because of security restrictions, I wasn't able to get out to a lot of the locations where forestry was taking place — that was a real frustration for me."
While restoration of many of Afghanistan's forests might be out of reach for now, urban tree planting and agroforestry — the growing of trees in an agricultural setting for particular purposes —are widely practiced.
"They're planting trees as windbreaks, to stabilize watercourses and to improve the urban environment — the streetscape," Groninger said.
"In Kabul, where the fighting was particularly intense, you go by all these bombed-out buildings and rubble and see saplings planted along the street — you might not think that's a high priority, but you see a lot of it.
"There are also some small operations under way to plant mulberry trees to feed silk worms and some to plant trees for construction. In about eight to 10 years, they can use the trees as timber for roof supports.
Both urban tree planting and agroforestry have great potential, Groninger believes. And if Afghans expand their work in agroforestry, they might one day be able to save their forests, too.
"Agroforestry would give them products to sell that would improve their economy," he said.
"That in turn would allow them to spend some money on restoring those devastated lands."
The key to success with all these trees — and something that sets Afghan forestry apart from its American counterpart — lies in irrigation.
"It's used for just about everything there — Mazar and much of the surrounding countryside lie in an irrigated basin," Groninger said.
"They've been doing this for thousands of years, and they're very well versed in moving water from where it is to where they need it."
Though Groninger has been a forester for 17 years, it was his expertise in teaching that the Afghans wanted to tap.
"Their teaching is based on a European model because that's where many in the faculty were trained," he said.
"They are very theoretical, and they don't do much in terms of providing real-world examples — a need that that the students themselves have identified. The training has been much more geared toward forestry that would be appropriate in Europe. There's a disconnect between what the students are taught and what they need to know to more effectively return trees to their landscape."
Groninger gave several lectures that showed how he taught forestry principles by linking them with actual places and projects. He also demonstrated the use of overheads and PowerPoint presentations as teaching tools, a subject of great interest to the Afghans.
"Mazar has had computers for only about a year, but they've really become popular — there are several Internet cafés there," Groninger said.
"One of the professors who had been using a computer for about six months showed me a trick in Excel that I didn't know, and I've been working in it since the 80s. To say it's catching on fast would be an understatement."
Afghans face special challenges when it comes to cyberspace.
"There are at least three types of electrical plugs, so they have to have outlets for all that, and the infrastructure is inadequate to provide a reliable supply of electricity," Groninger said.
"It seems it would be hard to get people up to speed on computers when the power is cutting out all the time, yet they are determined."
Serving others is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.
(Caption: A crop of trees — M. Agha Jabarkhil, a Pakistani agriculture expert, stands amid a stand of trees that Afghan foresters are raising as a commercial crop. Jabarkhil served as an interpreter during a visit to Afghanistan by John W. Groninger, an associate professor of forestry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Groninger is working on a federally funded project aimed at rebuilding the agriculture program at Afghanistan’s Balkh University. )