York alumna helps restore Afghanistan’s resource base

While most of us are hunkering down and plodding through winter, on the other side of the world York alumna Melissa Field (MES ‘02) is tackling a completely different environment. Since November 2003, she has been working in Afghanistan on a six-month contract with UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services).

Right: Melissa Field

Field is manager of a project called the Afghan Conservation Corps (ACC) that is helping to restore the country’s natural resource base through labour-intensive projects that answer the immediate need for employment in the area.

“I think it’s a great project and I feel that this is the most important thing we can give to the Afghans – a rehabilitated natural resource base and the ability to continue work without us,” said Field. “In this way, we are addressing the immediate and long-term needs of the country. Even if we were evacuated tomorrow, I will have been part of something that will really provide for the people, regardless of the international aid community’s presence.”

Left: Results of ACC work at Kabul polytechnic

Right: ACC labourers working on the Paghman water project, 2003 

Working in both an office in Kabul and in the countryside, Field has been developing and managing the pilot Women’s Conservation Corps project, producing communication materials, evaluating projects across the country and organizing a workshop to train technical staff with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment (MIWRE).

In a recent e-mail to York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies personnel, Field said, “During 20 years of conflict, anything that could be eaten, burned or sold in Afghanistan was.” She went on to give a synopsis of some of the work ACC is undertaking: “In response to this assessment of the post-conflict environment, our ACC projects across Afghanistan vary from nursery rehabilitation, reforestation, pistachio tree seeding, roadside planting, vineyard and orchard renewal to cleaning and greening of public parks, hospitals and schoolyards.”

Right: An ACC work crew prepares a site at Bagha-bala, Afghanistan

Once the Women’s Conservation Corps is up and running, the existing 67 projects have been monitored and the MIWRE workshop is completed, then Field hopes to focus on providing labour for Afghans through the creation of, and conservation planning for, countrywide national and provincial parks.

“I’m keen to use my planning skills,” Field enthused in e-mail correspondence, saying her environmental design talents are coming in useful as she helps draw up site plans for the beautification of hospital sites. These sites will include vegetable gardens to help provide patient meals; garbage separation and compost area; flower gardens; natural wooded areas; children’s play sections; and picnic grounds.

About the unstable country she works in Field said calmly: “There are 2,000 Canadian troops here right now, providing the largest percentage of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops, which are made up of NATO countries. ISAF presence is strong, with their helicopters flying over often and their vehicles patrolling the streets. In the south where the Taliban and Al-Queda are still strong, primarily along the Pakistan border, the Coalition are still active.

“As for me,” continued Field, “we are under strict security restrictions. We can’t go to public restaurants, can travel only in UN vehicles and must have blast-proof film on the windows of our homes and bunkers. Our curfew is 10pm and we have to check in with UNOPS security every night by radio. If I want to walk anywhere, I must be accompanied. Following recent attacks on ISAF and some other rocket blasts in the city, we are in complete lock down. We have no authorization to go anywhere except home and office.”

Not one to be overly frustrated by such restrictions on her lifestyle, Field added, “Happily, the people here are really great, especially my UNOPS colleagues, who are down-to-earth and come from all sorts of backgrounds. The Afghans I’ve met have been very hospitable. And the work is rewarding. I love seeing all the trees planted on bare hillsides.

Left: Field (left) on the streets of Kabul

“Plus, we can occasionally get away for a couple of days to innumerable interesting cities from this centrally located country,” said Field. “I just got back from four days at the beach in Dubai…. Talk about environment shock! Burkas to bikinis!”

When Field goes into the provinces to monitor projects, she notices an enormous improvement in the air over what she breathes in Kabul, which she described as “the worst air quality I’ve ever experienced.” She said there are no exhaust regulations, “and low-quality diesel is used, garbage is indiscriminately burned and homes are heated by wood or diesel-burning stoves.”

Field’s project work is funded mainly by the United States through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank.