Remarkable story of James Brett’s Plant for Peace

James Brett’s Plant for Peace is sprouting shoots, says Roddy Gow
James Brett set up Plant for Peace, a charity that helps smallholder farmers in conflict zones achieve food security. Picture: GettyJames Brett set up Plant for Peace, a charity that helps smallholder farmers in conflict zones achieve food security. Picture: Getty
James Brett set up Plant for Peace, a charity that helps smallholder farmers in conflict zones achieve food security. Picture: Getty

If you’re looking for inspiration going into 2015, look no further than James Brett.

James was perhaps the most remarkable speaker to address Asia Scotland Institute last year. His story deserves to be heard across Scotland.

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In 2007, James set up Plant for Peace, a charity that helps smallholder farmers in conflict zones achieve food security and sustainable development.

His main focus is Afghanistan, where through holding seven jirgas (elder gatherings) he has persuaded more than 55,000 elders to help deliver the Plant for Peace horticulture initiative across the country, creating millions of alternative livelihoods to opium production.

He has already signed up 22,000 farmers to stop growing poppies – the source of much of the world’s heroin – and to start growing pomegranates and other crops instead.

James previously lived in Dumfries and Galloway. Now he spends half his time in Afghanistan, where he has met the country’s president, Dr Ashraf Ghani, and been made welcome in areas held by the Taliban.

And it’s not just in Afghanistan where James’s work has made an impression. US officials have given him financial help. He has won the support of senior British military figures, including General Lord Richards. He has been invited to Balmoral to discuss Plant for Peace with Prince Charles.

But if James had never set foot in Afghanistan, had never toured that troubled country without a bodyguard or gun, his accomplishments would still be mind-boggling. His life story, which he shared with Asia Scotland Institute in November, is astonishing.

James was brought up in a religious family in Swindon, Wiltshire. Things were okay for him up until the age of about nine. Then his grandfather, who was head of his family’s church, began sexually abusing him.

James endured years of abuse before he began to understand what was happening. But by 15 he had had enough. He told his father. What followed is beyond tragic.

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On hearing the news, James’s mother became withdrawn. “The lights went out in her eyes,” James told us. “Three months later she killed herself.”

Eventually the police found out about the abuse and spoke to James. The officers told James that his grandfather was an upright member of the community who had no criminal history. The abuse wouldn’t happen again, they assured him, and what good could come of pursuing the matter further?

“I left that police station and I was broken,” James said. “But I was very angry and there was a fire burning in me that society now should pay.”

And society did pay. James started shoplifting. He became violent. He descended into heavy drug use. “I just went on a rampage … the whole thing was a mess,” he said.

Inevitably, a spell in a young offenders’ institution followed. “It was the best six months of my life,” James said, frankly. “I had an identity in there. I felt like I belonged.”

Against his wishes, James was then released on probation. He lived rough in woods for a while.

He then moved on to the rave scene, taking ecstasy for breakfast. At one point he spent “three months camping at the foot of Ben Nevis” with a girlfriend.

Only when James was awarded criminal compensation for the abuse meted out by his grandfather did his life start to improve. He bought his home in Scotland. He travelled widely. He began importing furniture from Indonesia, his first legitimate business venture.

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While in Pakistan James drank pomegranate juice for the first time – and as a result founded Pomegreat, the first pomegranate juice drink in the UK.

This turned sour in 2004 when James had a breakdown and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, losing control of the Pomegreat company.

But by the following year he had been released from hospital. Eighteen months of intensive counselling followed. James quit drugs, got well, and the following year Dr Julia Wright, an expert in sustainable agriculture, asked him to go to Afghanistan to talk to farmers about growing pomegranates.

In 2007, James drove into the country for the first time through the Khyber Pass, dressed as an Afghan. The seed of Plant for Peace was sown.

Today James’s charity oversees the growing of not just pomegranates but also almonds, mulberries, walnuts and apricots. He is in talks with Unilever about supplying Afghan horticulture produce. The first range of Plant for Peace fruit bars is due to appear on the shelves of Waitrose and Holland & Barrett in the summer.

“Dreams, if you believe, can become reality,” James told us. Asia Scotland Institute is proud to support him and be a small part of that dream.

• Roddy Gow is chairman and founder of The Asia Scotland Institute,