Kabul, 24 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- UN and Afghan officials are trying to put a little color back in Kabul's so-called "Green Zone" with the help of nearly $1 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Wendy MacClinchy is involved in the effort as a project officer with the Afghan Conservation Corps, which employs needy Afghans in public-works projects. It is a UN-managed program based on the Civilian Conservation Corps in the United States in the 1930s.
"They will look after the trees that they plant like they look after their own children."
This week -- dubbed Kabul Green Week by the Afghan government -- MacClinchy is coordinating the planting of hundreds of thousands of saplings in the barren hills and walled residential compounds of the capital.
"People may say that Afghanistan is a desert due to the results of the last 30 years of conflict. But, in fact, if you ask any of the older people, they will attest to the fact that 30 years ago all these hills were green -- all of them were covered in conifer trees. So that's the work that we're trying to do now -- to rehabilitate the forest around the area and restore the native habitat," MacClinchy said.
The hills around Kabul are not the only areas being targeted by Green Week projects. Efforts also are focusing on the lower-lying region of gardens, orchards, fields, and vineyards that had formed the city's Green Zone before decades of fighting took their toll.
Mujahedin fighters used the Green Zone and its underground irrigation tunnels to disperse after conducting hit-and-run attacks.
Counterinsurgency measures from the Soviet occupation through to the Taliban era attempted to deprive guerrillas of support by destroying crops, fruit trees, and irrigation channels.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is among those who remembers Kabul's trees. Khalilzad told journalists yesterday about those childhood memories.
"I remember Kabul as a child as a much greener city, and the quality of air has deteriorated since. We have contributed to a broad effort -- involving the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan Conservation Corps, the United States, and others -- to seek to plant some 850,000 seedlings [this week] in and around Kabul," Khalilzad said.
Another Green Week initiative is a project employing some 5,000 Afghan widows and disabled women. MacClinchy says most of these women have been deemed economically "vulnerable" and have been involved in previous Afghan Conservation Corps projects.
"They will receive fruit saplings to take home, and it will be a long-term income generation initiative for them. And in the short term, they will grow conifers and other things that we can plant in the Kabul green belt," MacClinchy said.
Green Week also includes environmental education programs on state radio and television, as well as the implementation of a UN-backed environmental curriculum for Afghan schools.
But the most complex aspect of environmental restoration this week is the distribution of hundreds of thousands of saplings to Kabul families.
An unofficial report by U.S. agriculture experts is raising concerns about whether the project will be successful. That report predicts most of the 850,000 saplings will not survive the summer. That has led UN workers to put in many extra hours watering the young trees at the warehouses where they are being stored.
MacClinchy says the plan for distributing the saplings has been affected by concerns that many of the trees may die.
"We've done our best to try to make sure that doesn't happen and to maximize the survivability of all of the trees that we bring in -- especially because of the high numbers, which is why we decided on the distribution free of charge to Kabul residents through different ministries, through Kabul University and then district by district through the local shuras and through the Kabul shuras. So it's been quite a logistical challenge. But by distributing one tree per family, it has a higher rate of survivability. They can manage the water for an individual tree much better than they can for 1,000 trees," MacClinchy said.
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai signaled his government's commitment to Green Week by getting personally involved. After planting a tree near the royal mausoleum overlooking the capital, Karzai told RFE/RL he hopes the families receiving saplings will nurture the plants.
"We are very happy to be planting trees in Kabul. And I hope through this planting of trees, the people of Afghanistan will -- in their homes, in front of their businesses and shops and workplaces, and wherever they can -- plant a tree and look after that tree for the beauty of their place of work, of their homes, of the country; for the good weather of the country, for the greenery of the country, for reducing the dust and dryness in the environment of our country. And that they will look after the trees that they plant like they look after their own children," Karzai said.
The municipal government of Kabul already has planted about 40,000 trees this week in public places such as mosques, schools, and hospitals and along the sides of roads in the capital.