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On Assignment in Afghanistan: Ginger Murphy

January 11, 2012

Ginger Murphy, ASLA, Associate Chief at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, is currently on a one-year assignment to Afghanistan as Deputy Coordinator of Intergovernmental Provincial Affairs. She spoke with LAF about her work and the role of landscape in a country facing so many challenges.


Tell us about your work in Afghanistan.

I lead a team of fifty USDA field ag advisors working all over Afghanistan. Their work has a great impact on the sustainability and stability of the country as they assist in improving agriculture by teaching farmers techniques to improve production so they have more products for market, techniques to improve handling and storage of their products to have them when market prices are better or when they need them for consumption, and methods of organizing themselves so they can share information and benefit from pooled resources. Field ag advisors also mentor and foster local Directors of Agriculture in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. We are trying to show local government officials how to be part of a government institution that delivers services to its people and is part of a functioning central government.

What are the main issues facing Afghanistan today and what impact do they have on the Afghan landscape?

There are many, many issues facing Afghanistan. If I had to name the top three, it would be Physical Security, Food Security, and Functioning Central Government Institutions. All are fundamental to a stable state.

The Afghanistan landscape shows scars of many years of war, conflict, and neglect. Afghanistan is an arid environment - very fragile. Without care and deliberate intervention, recovery of this landscape is bleak. Lack of physical security inhibits private and governmental organizations to freely invest in landscape improvement. Even improving and advancing food production areas does not occur readily or easily because security is always an issue. Though agriculture is critically important, production does not meet consumption.

Afghanistan is chronically food insecure. Most farmers are subsistence farmers, but even those who can produce enough food for market find much difficulty in finding markets. Simple infrastructure like roads, grading, and packaging facilities don’t exist to the extent to build a reliable, stable market. And last, the central government is so young, it is struggling to function as an institution able to push goods and services out to its people, so setting a vision to provide programs that focus on sustainable, productive, functioning landscapes is still a challenge.

Yet, there is progress in some areas. Reforestation projects in the northeastern forested areas of Afghanistan are underway, funded and lead by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. Melons are being exported to neighboring countries, demonstrating the first successes in marketing fresh produce at a premium price. And the Afghan Local Police and other Afghan Security Forces are taking responsibility for security in many parts of the country reclaiming their villages and districts.

What social, economic, and/or environmental opportunities exist that can be addressed with landscape solutions?

One of the most important landscapes in Afghanistan is rangeland. Kuchis, a nomadic tribal people, graze their livestock on lands owned by the Afghan government. The federal government owns 80% of the land in Afghanistan and historically, 80% of this land was in range. Improvement of rangeland in the country would not only improve the environmental condition of a large vast landscape, improving water and air quality, it would provide for improved livestock herds both in number and health for the Kuchis and improved incomes for these people.

What are the greatest challenges and rewards of the work you are doing there?

The greatest challenge is working in an unstable environment. Those Afghans working to improve the conditions in their own country put their own lives on the line. Governors, police officials and politicians have all been killed for their dedication, success, and influence in building their nation.

The greatest reward is seeing a government that continues to change and improve. And leaders who will step up despite the risks. And because of these brave people, one can see a change in the landscape — beautification projects in villages and cities, irrigation projects bringing more land into agricultural production, and reforestation projects, restoring a once productive and beautiful region.

How might a landscape architect get a job like yours? What was your career path, and do you have professional development advice to share?

I can’t say that I decided early on what my end goal would be in my career. I just worked very hard at whatever job I was doing. When I felt like I had done all I could do in a particular job, I looked for something else that would challenge and interest me. I always just looked for open doors when I knew it was time for a change, and I walked through the door I thought would be the best choice for me.

My education in landscape architecture helped me refine the skills I thought I had, made me a better critical thinker, and let me express myself in my work. Though I do not directly work in design, my education informs every decision I make. It informs the way I look at a landscape and informs the way I look at a job. Because of the complexity of a landscape, and the way one needs to think about a landscape to solve a design problem, those principles applied to my work make me a better leader, manager, and problem solver.

Are there opportunities for others to get involved?

Opportunities do exist to work in Afghanistan but because of the security issues, there are great risks. One can work for a non-profit working in Afghanistan, or work with the Federal government through the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture or through US AID. Some universities, through grants from federal agencies also have projects in Afghanistan. All will require either personal security or military or government security to perform the jobs. Design is not the main priority at present. But opportunities in restoration of both working and non-working landscapes do exist.

Any opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the author. Their inclusion in this article does not reflect endorsement by LAF.

LAF is grateful to the many individuals and organizations that provide financial support towards fulfilling our mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment.

Much of what LAF is able to accomplish would not be possible without the thought leadership and financial investment of our major supporters, including ASLA, which provides over $125,000 of in-kind support annually.