A friend has a great story about Englishman James Brett and his one-man mission to convert Afghanistan’s poppy fields into a pomegranate cash crop. In 2007, he convinced a local farmer to switch crops, and a remarkable snowball efect ensued.
In 2007, Brett was invited to Kabul to talk to farmers from various regions of Afghanistan about growing pomegranates. He flew to Peshawar and drove through the Khyber Pass heading to Kabul While driving through the Nangarhar Province, he noticed a farmer in a field of opium poppies. After the seminar in Kabul, Brett bought a large piece of card and a blue marker pen, and wrote ‘Pomegranate is the Answer’.
On his return drive back to Peshawar, he saw the same farmer again in the field, jumped out of the car and ran toward the farmer with his makeshift sign. His horrified translator chased after this mad ginger-haired Brit, yelling, ‘Don’t go in there, you could be shot!’ Undetered, Brett talked to the bewildered farmer through his translator, about the farmer’s life, his family, his children, how he lived and why he grew opium, about Brett’s own addiction to drugs. Brett explained that pomegranate was not only the best option as an alternative crop to opium poppies, but was the only feasible one for the Afghan climate and growing conditions, and promised to return to the farmer’s land a couple months later with pomegranate saplings. He went home and set up a charity called Pom354.
Brett followed through on his promise, returning a few months later to find the farmer had discussed this idea with sixteen other families with land around his own; all of them wanted to become involved. From there, the plan snowballed – in January, 2008, Afghanistan Television interviewed him, and other farmers asked him for help in changing their fields from poppies to pomegranates. The local member of Parliament and a respected Elder in the Tribal system wanted to know more. A tribal meeting covering the entire Nangarhar Province was called, and 200 Tribal elders invited.
The tribal elders agreed to finish poppy cultivation and switch to growing pomegranates throughout the entire Nangarhar Province by next year, making the region of 1.3 million inhabitants opium poppy free for the first time in a hundred years. The elders told Brett that their decision was based not only on a desire to maintain a level of stability, but because he was the first person who had ever come to them as just an ordinary man rather than a member of a foreign government or a military advisor, someone who simply wanted to see positive change.
That’s just bloody excellent. Our feel-good story for today. And the larger lesson is: trying to “nation build” using the Pottery Barn rule, when your first and last thought is for your own national interest instead of the sovereign interests of the people concerned, is always going to fail. People aren’t dumb.