Pakistani farmers: more roads and irrigation could boost their harvest

"The road has given us new life," explains farmer Larghal Shah. "I can get 450 rupees [$46] a month working on the road gang. What we grow is not by itself enough."

In the outside courtyard of his cottage in the Hindu Kush Mountains of northern Pakistan, the squat, unshaven Chitrali farmer eyes us curiously. In the kitchen his wife and daughter prepare a freshly killed chicken.

Few Westerners come through Larghal Shah's village above the thundering Yarkhan River. Our unexpected arrival shortly before midnight because of a road washout merits a special welcome and dinner.

"You can leave tomorrow," he says. "We will fix the road."

Like almost 20 million people in Pakistan (one-third of the rural population) , Larghal and his family must rely on subsistence farming. But his three acres of terrace barley, maize, and wheat fields, a few walnut and apricot trees, chickens, ducks, and three goats are barely sufficient to keep them alive.

Fortunately the government pays him to keep in good repair the narrow jeep track that winds above the river.

But the road is bringing other possibilities to this remote part of Pakistan some 50 miles south of the Wakhan Corridor. By improving road communications with the south, the Pakistanis hope to encourage market production for Chitral's fertile, green valleys.

"The north has a lot of potential, particularly in the growing of apples, apricots, pears, and peaches," said an expert in islamabad. "But up till now, poor transportation possibilities of bringing the fruit to the market towns in the plains below has not encouraged local farmers to work their land seriously."

Some 50 million acres of land are under cultivation in Pakistan, primarily in the Punjab and Sind. Another 50 million acres could be brought into agricultural production if sufficient water were available, experts say.

For example, in the blistering desert areas of Baluchistan, only a limited patchwork of irrigated land permits the planting of fruit trees and wheat. Some agricultural planners are convinces the region could be developed into a rich food producer, once more water sources are discovered or made available through advanced techniques. Only recently, the government opened up 350,000 acres of land in the Punjab through irrigation.

But much water is lost by Pakistan's aging canal system. Roughly 40 percent seeps away through unlined canals. Another problem is poor maintenance.

"Canals which are not taken care of have a tendency to widen and destroy their embankments," explained an agricultural adviser.

Theoretically, Western aid officials maintain, Pakistan could be producing as much as many other developed countries, with the exception of the United States. In the past three years, agricultural production has expanded by an average of 6 percent a year. It now constitutes roughly one-third of Pakistan's gross national product.

In comparison to India, Pakistan commands more agricultural resources. This year, for the first time, it has reached self-sufficiency in wheat production with a bumper crop of more than 11 million tons. But up to one-quarter of its is expected to e lost to damage from monsoon rains because of lack of dry storage facilities.

Pakistan's other main commodities, such as rice, cotton, and maize, have also shown substantial production increases in the past decade. But there is still a severe shortage of vegetable oils. At least 400,000 tons of vegetable oil will have to be imported this year -- a heavy burden on foreign exchange reserves.

Pakistan has made substantial progress in recent years. But Western aid officials point out that the agriculture industry's main drawbacks are poor management and techniques. Pakistan's illiteracy rate of over 70 percent is another barrier to introducing agricultural improvements.

So is the unwillingness, particularly among farmers with large acreages, to reinvest in their land for fear their wealth will be lost in further land reforms.

"There is no sense of teamwork among Pakistani farmers," noted one Western agricultural adviser.

Western experts say government officials often lack any real sense of priority. There is little foresight in dealing with difficulties.

Agricultural extension teams may have the proper education background and the right equipment at their disposal. But critics say, they may still often fail because they too frequently lack the patience and interest to establish a relationship with motivated farmers. One problem: They do not know which aspect of a problem to deal with first.

Several foreign aid officials told this correspondent that the Pakistani government is constantly asking for more aid to help in agricultural development. "But they could do a lot more with what they have got," said one European agricultural specialist.

"Western countries should really start rethinking their third-world assistance policies. Problems are not solved by simply pouring in lots of money. This may get one forward but not in the right direction."

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