A Look at the Unique Plant Life in Afghanistan

Although Afghanistan is a dry country that primarily encompasses arid desert and rugged mountain ranges, it is home to an incredibly diverse array of plant life. In fact, according to some botanists, when it comes to plants and vegetation, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s surprisingly rich and unique plant life.

Afghanistan has more species of flowering plants than Central Europe.

It would be easy to assume that a region like central Europe, with its damp climate so favorable to plant growth, would have a wider variety of flowering plants than arid Afghanistan. Interestingly, however, the opposite is true. Afghanistan has far more species and sub-species of flowering plants than central Europe. Approximately 4,500 distinct flowering plants have been identified in Afghanistan, and botanists believe that there are many more still to be found and named. Afghan flowering plants encompass more than 600 species within the legume/pea family; 500 species in the daisy family, including nearly 150 different types of thistle; and 205 species in the mint family.

Nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s flowering plants are not found anywhere else.

Afghanistan’s flowering plant life is not only exceptionally diverse, but it’s also unique. Approximately 30% of all of the country’s flowering plants are endemic to Afghanistan, meaning that they don’t grow anywhere else in the world. (In contrast, the UK—another region with a damp climate that is ideally suited to plant growth—only has about 1,700 species of flowering plants, and a mere handful of these are endemic.)

Afghanistan’s valleys helped to shape its floral biodiversity.

Afghanistan’s extraordinary floral biodiversity owes a great deal to the country’s distinctive landscape, particularly the fertile valleys that lie in between its soaring mountains. Over the course of millions of years, these valleys served as a refuge for plants, helping to preserve and protect floral life through a series of global ice ages that wrought destruction elsewhere (to take the UK as an example once again, that region was wiped relatively clean of species with each successive Ice Age due to the area’s fairly flat topography). Furthermore, because the valleys are isolated from one another, many new species were able to evolve in the different areas, each specially adapted to the highly specific local conditions.

Foraging for plants plays an important role in rural Afghanistan.

Given the rich diversity of plants found in Afghanistan, it’s hardly surprising that plant foraging is an important activity in the country, particularly in rural and remote areas. For many Afghans living in rural communities, foraged plants can provide an important source of food, medicine, and sometimes income (foragers often sell their finds by the roadside or from carts in urban areas). The following are some commonly foraged plants:

Rhubarb—Known as chukri or rawash in Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is the Afghan forage plant that is most recognizable to people in the west, particularly northern Europeans. In Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is a springtime delight that is usually an ingredient in salads, or simply sprinkled with salt and eaten raw. Since rhubarb is rich in key nutrients (such as calcium, manganese, potassium, and vitamins C and K), it is an important type of food for rural Afghans, particularly during drought years when other crops are more scarce.

Liquorice root—A member of the legume/pea family, liquorice is known for its pale purple flowers and sharp, distinctive flavor. Foragers dig up liquorice roots and boil them to make a tea, a common treatment for stomachaches. Dried liquorice roots are also an important Afghan export typically destined for markets in India and the Emirates.

Caraway—Zira-ye Kohi, as it is known in Afghanistan, is a delicious spice that is from the carrot family. It is frequently used in Afghan cuisine, especially as an addition to rice dishes.

Afghanistan is one of eight regions in the world where crops were first grown.

The richness and diversity of Afghanistan’s wild plants is also closely related to the country’s history of plant domestication. According to scholars, Afghanistan is part of the “Vavilov Centers,” a term used to describe the regions of the world—eight in total—where humans began domesticating plant crops. In order for this process of domestication to be successful, it is important for early growers to have ready access to each crop’s wild relatives. The fact that wild plants such as wheat, peas, and lentils existed so plentifully in Afghanistan thousands of years ago is what allowed their eventual domestication to take place.

A groundbreaking book on Afghanistan’s plants was recently published.

For those interested in the native plants of Afghanistan, more information can be found in the groundbreaking 2010 book Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation. The culmination of decades of work by a team of Afghan, German, and British biologists and scholars, the book is highly detailed, but easily accessible to non-specialists. Written in Dari and English, the book is used at many schools, universities, and research institutes throughout Afghanistan.

Spotlight on the Key Partners of the Bayat Foundation

For nearly two decades, the Bayat Foundation has been working to rebuild Afghanistan and to deliver hope and support to the country’s most vulnerable citizens. With a broad mission of improving the lives of Afghans, the foundation works across a number of different focus areas, engaging in projects that range from supporting post-secondary students to building maternity hospitals. Most recently, the Bayat Foundation has been involved in delivering food packages to families in need as part of its contribution to Afghanistan’s COVID-19 relief efforts.

In order to deliver these varied programs and services, the Bayat Foundation partners with a broad range of local and international organizations that offer focused expertise in different areas of humanitarian aid and development. Read on to learn about these important organizations.

Cordaid

A global humanitarian organization based in the Netherlands, Cordaid focuses on ending poverty and exclusion in countries such as Afghanistan. Supported by close to 300,000 private donors and connected to a worldwide partner network, Cordaid works to restore trust and cohesion in communities experiencing unrest, with the broader goal of improving essential services and stimulating inclusive economic growth. In 2019 alone, the organization reached 6.8 million people through health care interventions, facilitated access to education for 668,000 children, and offered $1.9 million in loans to small- and medium-sized enterprises to boost private sector development.

MATTER

The global nonprofit organization MATTER is driven by a vision of a world in which every person can lead a full and healthy life. A movement of people, businesses, and organizations, MATTER seeks to overcome one of the biggest modern challenges: a lack of access to health care and other resources necessary for healthy living. In pursuit of its goal of eliminating barriers to a healthier life, the organization engages in a number of activities in the US and around the world, such as redistributing medical supplies and equipment to underresourced hospitals and connecting children with healthy food options through its MATTERbox program.

Starkey Hearing Foundation

The Starkey Hearing Foundation has been one of the key partners of the Bayat Foundation since 2014, when the two organizations launched the Bayat-Starkey Afghanistan Hearing Care Mission. As the philanthropic arm of Starkey Hearing Technologies, the Starkey Hearing Foundation is committed to giving the gift of hearing to those in need. To do so, the foundation collaborates with governments, NGOs, and health care leaders worldwide to facilitate access to hearing care and technology for people with hearing impairments. Since its inception in 1984, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has reached more than 1.5 million people in over 100 countries.

Muslim Aid USA

A faith-based international charity, Muslim Aid USA works to support people and communities affected by natural disasters and unrest. In addition to providing emergency relief, Muslim Aid USA implements long-term development projects with the goal of helping vulnerable communities to build sustainable livelihoods. Driven by values such as compassion and justice, respect, and accountability, the organization is particularly focused on areas such as capacity building, economic empowerment, education, and women’s and children’s health.

Feed My Starving Children

A US-based nonprofit, Feed My Starving Children believes that hope begins with food. Nearly half of the deaths of children under 5 years old are the result of hunger and malnutrition. In order to combat this statistic, Feed My Starving Children teams up with food science and nutrition professionals to develop hand-packed meals. Moreover, it works with community-based distribution partners worldwide to ensure that they continue to reach the children who need them the most.

American University of Afghanistan

The American University of Afghanistan holds the distinction of being the only nationally accredited, private, not-for-profit post-secondary institution in Afghanistan. Committed to preparing future leaders, AUAF offers a non-partisan education to a co-ed student body. As a liberal arts institution, AUAF supports critical thinking and academic freedom among students and faculty alike, and it is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive, and respectful learning atmosphere. AUAF first opened its doors in 2006 with a cohort of 50 students. Today, the university enrolls over 1,700 students (both full- and part-time), and it has produced 29 Fulbright Scholars. In addition, AUAF maintains partnerships with some of the most respected institutions of higher education in the nation, including Stanford University, Georgetown University, and the University of California system.

Food for Kidz

Providing food to insecure communities in the US and regions around the world affected by natural disasters, war, and famine, Food for Kidz believes that change starts with the simplicity of a meal. In order to connect children and families in need with healthy and nutritious meals, Food for Kidz has developed a unique mobile packaging system. The organization provides all the necessary tools and support so that groups of volunteers—ranging from companies and schools to churches—can put together a package of life-sustaining food. Following a packaging event, Food for Kids connects with partner organizations to assess where the need is greatest, and then it ships and delivers the packaged food to those communities.

A Look at the New Program Helping Boost Literacy in Afghanistan

According to 2018 data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 12 million people in Afghanistan—roughly one-third of the country’s entire population—lack basic literacy skills. This figure has been dropping over the last decade thanks to considerable efforts by government entities and NGOs. However, it’s clear that there is still a great deal of work to be done when it comes to improving literacy rates in Afghanistan.

One new initiative determined to tackle this challenge head-on is the Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future (BESAF) project. A basic general literacy program geared towards some of Afghanistan’s most marginalized groups and communities, the BESAF project hopes to boost literacy levels for thousands of Afghans. Read on to learn more.

What is the BESAF project?

The Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future project is a two-year program that will provide some 15,000 youth and adult learners around the country with courses in basic general literacy.

Taking place in 2021 and 2022, these courses have the immediate objective of increasing fundamental literacy skills among some of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, including youth and adults in remote communities.

A broader goal of the BESAF project is to increase demand for and facilitate access to adult education, in order to better support Afghans who were unable to receive formal education during Afghanistan’s conflict years.

What is unique about the BESAF project?

One element that distinguishes the BESAF project from other literacy-building initiatives is that is places as much emphasis on teaching the teachers as it does on teaching the learners. One of the biggest challenges faced by education in general in Afghanistan is a lack of qualified teachers. In far too many learning situations, teachers are barely more educated or experienced than their students. The organizers of the BESAF project therefore made it a priority to ensure that their literacy courses would be taught by qualified, competent trainers.

To this end, the BESAF project began in late 2020 with a 10-day “training of trainers” workshop. A total of 124 master trainers—including program implementation managers, monitors, and district literacy managers —participated in the workshop.

They learned pragmatic tools and strategies for helping train and guide facilitators to effectively deliver literacy classes. The next step will, in turn, involve these master trainers providing further training to the hundreds of literacy facilitators who will be directly teaching and supporting BESAF learners.

Who is involved in the BESAF project?

Partners collaborating on the BESAF project include:

The UNESCO Office in Kabul

Re-opened in 2002, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been working for nearly two decades to help the government of Afghanistan build and grow its educational, cultural, informational, and scientific capacity. The Office’s broad range of programs are frequently operated in collaboration with a diverse array of local and international partners and stakeholders.

The goal is to enrich the lives of Afghan citizens, create a stronger future for the country, and build peace within and beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The UNESCO Office in Kabul, together with the Afghan Ministry of Education, is responsible for implementing the BESAF project.

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)

The primary funder of the BESAF project, Sida is the Swedish government’s agency for development cooperation. It works with a wide range of societal partners, including public and private sector agencies, civil society organizations, and research institutions.

Sida supports and carries out sustainable development initiatives in dozens of countries around the world. The agency’s broad goal is to help create conditions that will allow people experiencing poverty and oppression to improve their lives and livelihoods.

Why is the BESAF project important?

As the UNESCO Office in Kabul explains, education is the tool with which people can build the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to cope with the many complex challenges of contemporary life. Literacy is the cornerstone of education.

In other words, before people can better themselves and their communities, before they can benefit from more specialized education, they must first become literate. Programs like the BESAF project are therefore critically important in that they help create the foundation on which all future learning and personal development can rest.

What other educational initiatives does UNESCO support in Afghanistan?

The BESAF project is just one way in which UNESCO supports education in Afghanistan. In recent years, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has worked closely with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education to develop plans, policies, and tools for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). This program helps provide unemployed or underemployed adults with targeted training.

UNESCO has also played an instrumental role in helping Afghanistan create its third National Education Strategic Plan. The ambitious policy document lays out a comprehensive and cohesive vision for improving the state of education throughout the country.