Revitalizing Afghanistan, One Tree at a Time
March 24, 2022

Now in her 40s, Mariam Raqib can still remember what the lush Afghan countryside looked like before it was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union from 1979-1989. Mariam left her birthplace in 1983 at the age of eight. Yet she still holds memories of a green and fertile terrain containing everything from wheat fields and lemon trees to garlic planted in small corners of a garden. During these formative years, Mariam formed an unbreakable bond with the land and people of Afghanistan. To this day, she maintains a firm belief in the necessity of self-sufficient Afghan communities, where “people are able to feed themselves” through the sustainable use of land and natural resources under local control.

About 6 million Afghans fled the Soviet occupation at the time of her own family’s departure. “I didn't leave because I wanted to go on vacation somewhere. I left because my father, me, and members of my family would have been killed otherwise.” The country and its people still endure the lasting consequences of the Soviet and U.S. occupations, but Mariam’s connection to Afghanistan’s history, language, and culture made her yearn to return to her motherland. Mariam set foot on Afghan soil again some 20 years after leaving as a child refugee, returning with a graduate education and a determination to help repair the country. Upon her arrival, shock filled her body,  realizing “this is what war is about. I saw the preface, the beginning, and now the aftermath… I returned to the home that I lived in as a child, and it was unrecognizable.”

Mariam recognized the power of the Afghan people to rebuild their country by reclaiming their soil. She saw that ecological revitalization offered a path forward for her community to restore the beauty she remembered as a child. In 2008, she established Afghanistan Samsortya, an organization founded for the initial purpose of planting trees, but which has since evolved to encompass even more intersectional community development work. After 17 years, the organization has built five plant nurseries across Eastern Afghanistan; created the Nursing and Midwifery Education program to address the short supply of local healthcare providers; donated chickens through the Nangarhar Chicken Project to battle malnutrition by allowing families to feed themselves and generate income through the sale of eggs; and by constructing wells to supply clean water to local residents. “It's not a profession. It's not a hobby. It's really a way of life. I can't imagine doing anything but what I'm doing, and I wish I could do it better,” she says.

Mariam believes that “the absence of trees in Afghanistan has brought about an environmental calamity.” “Even just the shade from a single tree,” she says, “can make a world of difference and help alleviate some of that cruelty and pain that Afghans have endured over the past 40 years and more.” For Mariam, trees embody life-changing capabilities, and can be magnified across a landscape. The absence of trees means the quality of life is compromised. She recalled a moment from a recent visit:

“It was June or July and the weather temperature was I think maybe 110 degrees. I arrived and walked into Fozia’s home. She's got little grandchildren around five or so and a young daughter who was separated from her husband who was in Pakistan, working so that he could provide for the family. This grandmother was taking care of the family. I had paid a surprise visit, and there wasn't any food in her home when I arrived. The person who received the tree is that kind of a person. Now when she plants that tree, she will have fruit from it. And she will have wood. From the extra branches of the eucalyptus or other trees that she planted, she'll burn in her Tandoor and, and cook her bread with that. That's the transformation that takes place. From hunger to that level of security… That's magic.”

Trees bring nutrition, kindling, relief from the heat, and social justice benefits: “I seek sanctuary in a place that has trees for my mental health. I want that place for other people as well. They are so broken and so hurt. It's not physical pain… It's an emotional pain Afghans have to live with constantly.” A local woman once remarked to Mariam “that a rose just gave her comfort. And maybe for that split second, for that moment, she forgot about her pains. I don't know how we quantify that, and I'm not going to. I'm just going to keep planting the trees.” Afghanistan Samsortya has revitalized the transition of the country “from a place that was absolutely barren to a garden where a young woman may go to seek solace and comfort from the heartache, tragedies, and lack of justice of the world. And, maybe dream I can do something with my life.” 

When trees are planted in the same manner as Afghanistan Samsortya to empower women and promote local, democratic control, they also offer an inspiring model for achieving climate justice throughout the world. Mariam founded Afghanistan Samsortya to foster independence and self-actualization for rural residents, and particularly women. In the upcoming days, 12 women will graduate from the organization’s midwifery and nursing program. These women and the classes that came before them now have the skills to provide healthcare support to their communities.

She notes that “[Western] support and aid for the Arabs was money, or most of the time it was military aid, which meant weapons.” Instead of being dependent on international development aid, Mariam works to create a non-hierarchical, decentralized system that can avoid relying on governments .” Self-sufficiency, ecological sustainability, mutual cooperation, and the empowerment of women offers the promise to heal Afghanistan, and she seeks to create spaces to nurture these qualities in individuals and their communities. She states that “the human capacity to inflict pain is really exceptional. The human capacity to also show love, compassion, healing, cooperation and sustenance, also takes my breath away…We can do better. We really can.” 

Bringing forth that capacity requires action. Mariam stresses the need for concrete action instead of finding respite in empty words. “Things look very good on a piece of paper or as a painting hanging on the wall. But you must get your hands dirty in the ground and dig.” All donations to Afghanistan Samsortya make an incredible impact for Afghan residents, with every dollar used to help further the organization’s projects and initiatives. One dollar can help fund a woman’s tuition for the midwifery and nursing program. It is enough to buy a chicken to help feed a family. Or it can go towards the planting of a fruit tree which will provide food and shade for generations. 

To Mariam, the perils and promises present in Afghanistan hold truths for the rest of the world. “What I've seen in Afghanistan, if we don't put a stop to it, the rest of the world is going to look worse than that… My heart aches for the level of pain that we have in this world and how needless and excruciating it is. We train our sons, our younger generation, or our daughters, to be warriors, training them to think guns and bullets are the way to go… But, if we actually train them to become something else, they will become something else.” Mariam is intent on putting those words into practice. Just last year, Afghanistan Samsortya worked with local residents and the City of Kabul to successfully plant thousands of trees on public land and along roads. There are more than just the physical and nutritional benefits to planting the trees, the organization’s work shows the deep impact of practical community empowerment projects where everyone benefits. “This planet is a shared home. It's a collective home. What happens over there has an impact here. What happens here has an impact there – should not the wars have taught us that?”

Mariam Raqib is a Fellow with the Global Center for Climate Justice, and the Executive Director of Afghanistan Samsortya.  If you would like to learn more about her efforts, and to support the work of the organization, go to

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