A former chairman of the Newcastle Planning Board and past president of the Damariscotta-Newcastle Rotary Club spent three and a half years in Afghanistan assisting in the reconstruction of the country’s agriculture industry.
Merle Parise, of Newcastle, credited serving on various local boards and organizations and his studies in environmental science and climate and society as contributing factors in his passion for international development.
“I’ve been practicing natural resource management in Maine since 1984,” Parise said. “When you’re doing this work and reading about what is happening, you can see there’s a need for help overseas.”
In 2007, Parise volunteered with the Peace Corps at the Parque Nacional Volcán de Colima, a national park bordering the Mexican states of Jalisco and Colima. For the two years he was in Mexico, Parise worked with employees to restore and conserve the soil and the forest in the park.
Parise returned from Mexico in October 2009. Less than a month later, he was participating in a training program with the United States Agency for International Development to be sent to Afghanistan as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team to help the Afghan people reconstruct their provinces.
Parise was assigned to the Norwegian Provincial Reconstruction Team as agricultural advisor in Maymana, the capital of the Faryab province in northern Afghanistan. Parise’s goal was to reconstruct the agriculture industry in the province.
“Right now it’s the hunger times in Afghanistan,” Parise said. “It’s not that there isn’t food available, because there is. The Afghans just don’t have the money to buy it. They’ve lost their entitlement to food.”
In addition to the Norwegian Provincial Reconstruction Team, Parise worked with various U.S. and Afghan government departments, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Afghan counterpart, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock, as well as various non-government organizations during his three and a half years in Afghanistan.
Parise focused part of his attention on reconstructing irrigation systems as the country headed into a drought. Parise studied 30 years of precipitation and temperature records and found the region had experienced an increase in temperature and a decrease in precipitation in the past three decades. As a result of the drought, farmers were losing almost 30 percent of their crop, Parise said.
“For some of these farmers, they would go from the beginning of spring to the end of the harvest season with no precipitation, which would just devastate them,” Parise said. “The governments came together and were able to supply them with resources so they could survive, but it was a problem that was going to persist unless something was done about it.”
Parise helped to construct three irrigation systems, which provided irrigation for more than 70,000 farmers in the region, Parise said.
The Provincial Reconstruction Team also rebuilt 12 kilometers, or 7.5 miles of road and constructed a slaughterhouse to move the butchering of animals from the downtown to a safe, controlled environment, Parise said.
In 2012, Parise was transferred to the city of Kunduz, which is considered to be a regional agricultural hub, Parise said. Parise was responsible for five provinces.
While working in Kunduz, Parise trained combatants who had turned themselves in to the government in horticulture and agriculture.
“We would work with the combatants so that they could go back to their villages and support their families by planting a pistachio tree farm,” Parise said.
The effort helped to grow more than 2,500 acres of pistachio trees in the region, Parise said.
Another part of Parise’s mission was also focused on educating the region’s farmers. When a chronic disease was killing up to 80 percent of the region’s melons, Parise taught farmers how to use pesticides and proper sanitation methods. By the time he left the country, Parise said the melon crop had grown to an 80 percent success rate each year.
Parise visited the University of Faryab monthly to teach a seminar program about the challenges facing the agriculture community. During Parise’s time there, the Faryab Agricultural Institute graduated its first female students with degrees in agriculture in 2012.
“The dean of the agriculture department was a female, which is extremely rare,” Parise said. “So to be able not only to work with her, but to see the first group of females pass the final test for the department was extraordinary.”
With assistance from the U.S. State Department, the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock, and the University of Faryab, Parise worked on two topical radio programs which reach 150,000 people around the province. Parise spoke about issues facing farmers in the area, such as when to sell crops and when to prepare for planting season.
“We broadcast the show in three different languages to reach as many people as possible,” Parise said. “It wasn’t only reaching the farmers. It was also being heard by the women who are responsible for maintaining the home and the home economy.”
In addition to his work in the agriculture sector, Parise also worked with the U.S. Department of Commerce to help the Afghan rug industry and its manufacturers. Parise said the Afghans had a strong local economy creating the hand-dyed wool rugs.
“At the time, Afghans were producing these gorgeous rugs, but the rugs were being shipped to Pakistan or Iran to be finished,” Parise said. “It wasn’t giving the Afghans the opportunity to brand their rugs as Afghan rugs.”
With the help of the Department of Commerce and the U.S. military, a finishing factory was constructed to allow Afghans to finish the rugs in Afghanistan.
“It really was a boost in the economy, because the rugs could now be marketed as authentic Afghan rugs,” Parise said. “It’s an industry that was popular about 50 years ago and had died away, but now is back on the rise.”
For his work in Afghanistan, Parise received the Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. State Department, a Norwegian National Service Medal, and a NATO service medal.
Parise returned to Newcastle in 2013. He currently works at MJP Forestry, his environmental services company, although he hopes to return overseas one day.
“Both my wife and I have a strong passion for international development, so we hope to go together someday,” Parise said. “It’s a good retirement goal.”