James Brett – Plant for Peace
James Brett“Dreams, if you believe, can become reality”– James Brett, founder of Plant for Peace
They say that which does not kill us makes us stronger. James Brett proves the point.
James is the driving force behind Plant for Peace, a charity he set up in 2007 to help smallholder farmers in conflict zones achieve food security and sustainable development.
It’s a remarkable initiative which currently focuses on Afghanistan, where James has singlehandedly persuaded 22,000 farmers to stop growing poppies – the source of much of the world’s heroin – and to start growing pomegranates instead.
Plant for Peace has won the support of everyone from Taliban and tribal leaders in Afghanistan to Prince Charles and Mr Bean back here in the UK, more of which later.
But if James had never set foot in Afghanistan, had never toured that trouble country without a bodyguard or gun, his accomplishments would still be mind-boggling.
“She was never the same again”
His life story is astonishing, and his presentation to Asia Scotland Institute was the most moving and powerful we have had the privilege to hear. (Scroll down to watch a video of James’s entire talk at the bottom of this page.)
“I was brought up in a religious family and we used to go to church every Sunday,” James told his audience at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation. “My grandfather was the head of our church…
“As a child, when I look back, everything seemed okay. Then at the age of roughly about nine or ten my grandfather started sexually abusing me… ”
Sex was not discussed in James’s family. He endured years of abuse before he began to understand what was happening to him. But by the age of 15 he had had enough. James told his father. What followed is beyond tragic.
On hearing the news, James’s mother – a kind woman who fostered mistreated babies – became withdrawn. “At that point the lights went out in her eyes… “ he said. “She was never the same again. Three months later she jumped off a car park and killed herself.”
“Society should now pay”
Eventually the police found out about the abuse and spoke to James. Incredibly, they chose to hold that meeting in an interview room looking out on the very car park from which his mother had leapt to her death.
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, but 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.”
James signs up his first Afghan farmer, 2007And society did pay. James started shoplifting. He became violent. He was smoking 30 joints of hash a day. Two of his best friends died – one in a drug-induced car crash at 29, the other with a needle in his arm at 24. “I just went on a rampage… the whole thing was a mess,” he said.
An attempt to smuggle 10 kilos of hash into the UK from Amsterdam finally landed James in a young offenders’ institution. “It was the best six months of my life,” he said, frankly. “I had an identity in there. I felt like I belonged.”
James was then released on probation – against his wishes. For months he lived rough in woods outside his home town of Swindon, Wiltshire. He washed in streams and lived on nettle soup and other food gathered from the forest. He found his thoughts turning to Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa.
“A beautiful, beautiful day”
James’s next drug of choice was ecstasy: “I used to have one every day for breakfast.” He got into the rave scene in Plymouth. Then, in a change of tack, he spent “three months camping at the foot of Ben Nevis” with a girlfriend.
James’ life began to improve when he was finally awarded criminal compensation for the sexual abuse meted out by his grandfather. He bought homes in Swindon and Dumfries and Galloway. He travelled widely, visiting as many as 80 countries. He began importing furniture and handicrafts from Indonesia, his first legitimate business venture.
While in Pakistan James drank pomegranate juice for the first time and he immediately decided to import it as Pomegreat – the first pomegranate juice to be sold in UK supermarkets.
That venture turned sour in 2004 when James had a breakdown and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. His troubles had finally caught up with him. “I was diagnosed as schizophrenic, manic depressive and bipolar – you know, the whole lot,” he said. “I wasn’t any of it. I was just sad… I was just angry, I was hurting.”
But he wasn’t beaten yet. By the following year he had been released from hospital as an outpatient. Eighteen months of intensive counselling followed. James quit drugs, got well, and was taken out of the care of the mental health services for the first time in 20 years.
“That was on 14 November 2006,” James said, “A massive, massive day for me… overwhelming. A beautiful, beautiful day. It was a milestone.”
And so we come to Plant for Peace, the seeds of which were sown the following year when an expert in sustainable agriculture asked James to go to Afghanistan to talk to farmers about growing pomegranates.
Plant for Peace logo James did just that, driving into the country for the first time through the Khyber Pass, dressed as an Afghan. “It was April, opium harvest time,” he said. “There were fields of opium everywhere. I thought I’ve got to do something about this, but who am I to do something about it?”
A few days later he found himself stopping his car and running into a field full of poppies to ask a local farmer if he would grow pomegranates instead. “I asked him about his life and told him about mine,” James said. “I told him about the problems of heroin in the Western world and we sort of connected. He recognised my emptiness and I recognised his. It was a normal common denominator between us, really.”
13 tonnes of drugs burned
“One of the most overwhelming things about me running into that field and speaking to him was that he had no perception of the outside world really,” James went on. “He hadn’t really had any access to electricity, he didn’t read or write. All he knew was that someone turned up twice a year and paid him some money at the farm gate for his crop.”
That courageous Afghan was the first of 22,000 farmers who have since signed up to the Plant for Peace initiative. James now spends half his time living in Afghanistan. He’s met the president, Dr Ashraf Ghani. He’s been made welcome in areas held by the Taliban. He’s spoken at numerous Jirgas, or gatherings of elders – the largest of which was attended by 14,000 people.
And it’s not only in Afghanistan that James’s work has made an impression. After he appeared on Afghan television overseeing the burning of 13 tonnes of drugs, he was contacted by US officials who have since given him millions of dollars in support.
James also has the backing of senior British military figures, including General Sir David Richards, now Lord Richards. He has been invited to Balmoral and Clarence House to discuss pomegranates and agriculture with Prince Charles. Rowan Atkinson – a huge star in Afghanistan thanks to Mr Bean – is another important supporter.
Meanwhile, Plant for Peace goes from strength to strength. These days it oversees the growing of not just pomegranates but also almonds, mulberries, walnuts and apricots. James is in ongoing talks with Ben & Jerry’s about a range of ice creams. Its first range of fruit bars is due to appear on the shelves of Waitrose and Holland & Barrett next year.
“Dreams, if you believe, can become reality,” James said, concluding with a modest smile. Please support Plant for Peace and be part of that dream.