While the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s urban areas has captured the media’s attention, the virus has also proven to be devastating to far-flung rural communities. In Afghanistan, several organizations have turned their attention to helping the Kuchis, a nomadic people whose livelihood comes from livestock—as well as other herding groups—to weather the pandemic. Health officials have found that the virus lockdown has not only cut off trade opportunities for rural farmers, but it has also has made large gathering places, such as agricultural markets, potential hot spots for the spread of the virus.
The Kuchis’ Plight
Afghanistan’s nomadic group typically earns money by herding goats, camel, and sheep around the country. The Kuchis have adhered to this lifestyle for hundreds of years, but due to droughts and the destruction of grazing land, more than 500,000 of them (one-third of Afghanistan’s Kuchi population) are dealing with food insecurity. Consequently, this group has become impoverished and marginalized.
Candra Samekto, the county director for Afghanistan for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said this summer that as many markets and shops closed, the Kuchis no longer had a place to sell their livestock and dairy products. In cases where local markets were open, they had to sell livestock for as much as 40% less than pre-pandemic prices. A report that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released in July 2020 stated the Kuchis have also suffered due to a lack of pasture space and feed for their animals, along with unreliable veterinary services. In a survey taken in the summer of 2020, nearly one-third of the Kuchis who responded said they had to resort to “negative coping mechanisms” to keep their livestock alive. In addition, more than one-third of the respondents said they were experiencing difficulties in selling their produce, including dairy items.
As coronavirus continues to spread, Kuchis and other rural farmers will likely continue to struggle, as food prices have increased. In addition, transporting goods to local markets remains difficult as a result of road closures and higher transportation costs. “One concern is that Kuchis sell their productive assets and livestock to cope now and cannot recover after the pandemic,” said Candra Samekto, IFAD country director for Afghanistan, in a media interview. In response, several agencies have stepped up to help Afghanistan’s rural agriculture sector survive the pandemic.
Educational Campaign Focuses on Coronavirus
Due to international funding, several agencies have undertaken efforts to help rural farmers in Afghanistan understand coronavirus and to protect them from its impact. FAO is conducting an educational campaign in Afghanistan’s rural regions, where people did not know about coronavirus precautions. One tactic has been to make announcements using a megaphone in local markets in order to remind people to stay 2 meters apart, wear gloves and face masks, and refrain from hugging and shaking hands. Markets are often busy and overcrowded, which creates ideal conditions for the spread of the virus.
Along with disseminating information, FAO is working to protect markets from the spread of coronavirus so that they won’t have to close. FAO has partnered with 17 of Afghanistan’s largest agriculture and livestock markets, which collectively serve about 125,000 people annually, in order to educate vendors and customers and to provide personal protective equipment, cleaning and hygiene products, and thermal measuring equipment. Livestock sellers have also taken printed information back to their villages to share with their neighbors.
Financial Assistance to Farmers in Need
Another FAO initiative aims to provide financial assistance to farmers in need to compensate them for their losses, and it also offers animal feed and veterinary assistance during their seasonal migration. Typically, in the fall, herders move their animals to grazing areas as farmers are harvesting some of their primary crops. This year, some herders cannot gain access to pastures or buyers for their produce due to COVID-19 restrictions. The FAO’s support will help herders to provide feed for animals so that they can fatten them up for the cold winter ahead. The money will also help the families to buy the food and supplies that they need for themselves this winter.
A similar project overseen by IFAD and the Afghan government known as the Community, Livestock and Agriculture Project (CLAP), also focuses on spreading information about the virus to some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan, where many people are illiterate and lack access to digital information. In recent years, CLAP has supported herders by helping them to create soft cheeses and ghee, a clarified butter from milk that has a long shelf life and sells at a higher price than raw milk. CLAP has also taught herders about milk processing and provided equipment to create dried dairy products that can be preserved until markets reopen.
Recently, CLAP has trained its existing network of field units, which includes 52 veterinary units, to share information about COVID-19 protection and distribute picture-based brochures. The project has also supplied hygiene kits, which include soap and masks, to 48,000 families. The veterinary units will continue to provide crucial services, such as vaccines, deworming, and other healthcare treatments, to animals across seven provinces.