The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 28, 2014

Speaker talks about effort to aid Afghan farmers

Justin Dennis

CHEST SPRINGS — Robert Clauto left the United States around Christmas 2011.

He was bound for the patchy, dun-colored Afghan countryside – a small military outpost in Orgun, East Paktika, a southeastern pocket on the border of the landlocked nation.

He was embedded with the 171st Infantry Brigade, the Black Hawks. He described the area as “volatile.” Just before his arrival, two members of another unit were lost in an attack.

He went on behalf of the federal Department of Agriculture and the Foreign Agriculture Service – a volunteer trip to help poor farmers connect with the federal government and get the resources they need to help cultivate land across the country.

Clauto, 50, of Gallitzin, is the acting supervisory district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. He relayed his voyage through a photo slideshow at the spring meeting of the Cambria County Farm Bureau, held Thursday evening at St. Monica Parish in Chest Springs.

“They were recruiting people from our service because of their technical background,” he said. “(I went) to help the poor and to help my country in a time of war with a needed skill.

“The Afghans are a 95 percent subsistent society on agriculture,” he said. “Being such a heavily agricultural population, they were looking to send USDA people with that agricultural background over.”

Although Afghanistan has pomegranate, apricot, peach and pine nut trees in good supply, Clauto said, the impoverished culture – making do with an average salary of $200 a year – blocks much progress. The area, which Clauto said only receives an average of 7 inches of rainfall each year, also was decimated by the Russian occupation in the 1980s.

“(I saw) the extreme poverty that existed in that country and the disparity – people in real need,” he said. “They’re very poor. They just didn’t have anything to live on.”

The vistas in his photos were dry and near-barren.

“It’s a really depleted soil,” he said of the agricultural areas he worked in, while a rocky gray expanse was projected on the wall. “It’s been farmed so long. It’s not a recent soil.”

Clauto said although he worked through language barriers – he said about 98 percent of East Paktika was illiterate – he was able to arm village elders with the knowledge to revive their lands.

“Afghan villagers were very accepting of the assistance you could provide them, even if it was just knowledge of what they were doing,” he said. “They know how to farm, they just don’t have the resources. They have a very poor soil and had nowhere to go get it.”

At one of the poorest East Paktika villages he toured, he helped repair an irrigation dam.

Clauto returned one year later, before Christmas 2012.

“Afghanistan was a very successful trip,” he said. “We had a really good year.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at