HUDSON AT LARGE: Man on a mission...Afghanistan holds no fear for entrepreneur James

James Brett planting pomegranates in Afghanistan

James Brett planting pomegranates in Afghanistan

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LATER this year Waitrose customers will be able to try a new range of pomegranate-based cereal bars.

So what?

Well, these will be no ordinary cereal bars. For one thing, they’ll come with Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s personal approval.

For another, their main ingredient will be grown on land once given over to opium, the cradle of the international heroin trade.

Oh, and none of this would be possible without the vision of a stubborn Swindon man whose tormented youth once led him to living rough in the woods.

If 43-year-old James Brett, the driven founder of the Plant for Peace charity, has his way, a day will come when Afghan opium production is a thing of the past and its farmers prosper through legitimate agriculture.

He has little time for people who dismiss Afghanistan as a hellish place of anguish, murder and hostility.

“I lay this down to anybody who has that viewpoint,” he said. “Whenever I’ve gone to Afghanistan in the last six or seven years of my life, whatever home I’ve passed, whatever door I might have knocked, every door has been open.

“I’ve had to force myself out of homes because otherwise I would still have been there because of their hospitality, and there are lots of meals still waiting for me.

“They have nothing and they give their all.”

Of the many stories of our local people achieving success in the face of dire adversity, his is one of the most compelling.

Sexually abused by his grandfather as a child, he told his mother, only for her to commit suicide. Sent completely off the rails, the young James dabbled in soft drugs and crime, eventually leaving home and living in a tent in Clout’s Wood near Wroughton.

Managing to turn his life around through force of will and become a businessman, he discovered and indulged a love of travel.

On a visit to Pakistan in 1999 he happened to buy a cup of pomegranate juice from a street vendor and had the idea of making it the next big British health drink. Pomegreat was born and is available to this day.

Then, in 2007, he visited Afghanistan and happened to pass one of the country’s countless opium fields. Ignoring his guide’s warnings that he risked being murdered, James asked the farmer whether he would consider switching to pomegranate production.

The positive response led to the creation of Plant for Peace, and set James on an endless round of speaking to tribal gatherings, politicians and VIPs.

So far about half a million pomegranate trees have been distributed to farmers, and many more are being grown in readiness for distribution.

“Why do I do this is a classic question people ask me,” he said. “I remember I was running round the streets of Swindon a complete mess.

“Sometimes I would shoplift for food – whatever I had to do to get through the day and survive.

“Whatever we have to do in life, that determines our actions and our behaviour. We have no choice.

“There are a lot of people in Afghanistan who have been displaced and lost their land – there’s no other income.

“What can they do? If you’re in that situation, what options do you have? You grow opium or you join the Taliban.”

Such is James’ profile that he was able to engineer a meeting with Hamid Karzai and offer him a prototype cereal bar.

The reaction? For the first time an answer has to be coaxed out of James: “He shook my hand and said we had done more for the country than all the other countries that were there.”

Plant for peace has been endorsed by – among others – former Chief of the Defence staff Sir David Richards, former British Army chief Sir Richard Dannatt, Sir William McAlpine and Lady McAlpinne, the Marquis and Marchioness of Reading, the USAid organisation and many others.

Its website includes a comment from Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan, who serves on the charity’s international steering group: “I have always believed that without hope we have nothing. When James Brett began explaining to me about Plant for Peace I realised that here is a courageous man who has turned the notion of Hope from an ethereal concept into a living reality.”

The Plant for Peace website is plantforpeace.org

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