September 7, 2002 - Columbian: Guatemala RPCV Gary Burniske to head Mercy Corps in Tajikista

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By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, September 17, 2002 - 6:18 pm: Edit Post

Guatemala RPCV Gary Burniske to head Mercy Corps in Tajikista

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Sep 7, 2002 - Columbian
Author(s): Tom Vogt, Columbian Staff Writer

Andrea and Gary Burniske have seen the seeds of progress take root and grow in some unlikely soil. That's why they continue to pack up a few necessities -- which now includes their infant daughter -- and head for faraway places.

This time the place is called Dushanbe. It's the capital of Tajikistan, which neighbors Afghanistan, and it's where the Vancouver family will spend the next couple of years.

Mercy Corps, a Portland-based relief agency, has appointed Gary Burniske head of its operation in Tajikistan.

Andrea Burniske doesn't have a job there yet, but as a veteran international development worker who can speak Russian, "she will be a valuable commodity," he said.

The third member of the family is 17-month-old Isabella.

"At 4 months, she floated down the Amazon," her mother said last week in the family's Hazel Dell home, shortly before the family departed.

Tajikistan isn't as remote as an Amazonian rain forest, but it still qualifies as a faraway place -- even by jetliner. It took a week for the Burniskes to fly into Dushanbe, by way of Munich and Istanbul.

They each packed two suitcases for the flight. If they're lucky, the rest of their personal gear might arrive by Christmas.

Gary Burniske said the assignment is open-ended, but it will run at least two years. It's a long stretch in a strange land, but he's gotten used to that. In the last 25 years, Burniske said, "I've probably spent two years in this country."

The former University of Massachusetts forestry student has worked with a series of relief and development nonprofit agencies since joining the Peace Corps out of college. He also has worked for CARE, the Institute for Sustainable Communities, the International Tropical Timber Organization and the Rainforest Foundation, which is bankrolled by the musician Sting.

Burniske has worked in South and Central America, Africa, Europe and Asia, often focusing on timber and other natural resources.

Back into the boonies

Burniske has worked with indigenous tribes in remote villages, helping them regain the rights to resources, then showing them the economic value of sustainable forests.

"I can spend three days getting to a community. It starts with a flight on a small plane to a landing strip. From there, a boat is the main way to go: one or two days up small tributaries," he said. "Then you hike, usually half a day. Most villages aren't too far from a waterway."

Burniske's assignment now is an entire country, and then some. The northern portion of Afghanistan butts into Tajikistan's midsection, so it will be easier for his office to administer aid to Afghans in that mountainous region.

Burniske speaks Russian, which still gets you where you need to go in the former Soviet state. He learned Arabic during an assignment in Sudan, so "I'll be able to learn Tajik by knowing Arabic," he said.

"It's very important to understand the society you are in," said his wife, who was known as Andrea Lafayette as a 1978 graduate of Columbia River High School. While working on a master's degree at the University of Oregon, she helped a group write a grant proposal for a project in the Soviet Union. That steered her into a career in international development work.

Andrea Burniske helped business development in a part of the world where words like "capitalist" and "profit" were viewed as obscenities, although she noted, "Greed has always been alive and well."

Some Russian businessmen would have to keep three different sets of books, she said: "One for the tax collector, one for the mafia and one for himself."

Andrea met Gary in 1998 in Russia, where they were working for the Institute for Sustainable Communities. They were married in 2000. They wound up in Peru when CARE offered Gary a job, and that's where their daughter was born.

"I'm ready to go back to work now," said Andrea, 42.

No quick fixes

It's work that requires every bit as much patience as raising a teething toddler.

"If you go in with an expectation of how you will change things, it can really go wrong," Andrea Burniske said. "You have to realize that things will never work as designed. Sometimes it just cannot be done as it is in the U.S.

"You can't always always effect an immediate change," she said. "But you can start making changes in behavior, and that's what makes you optimistic. You can get people to open their minds, to consider things they hadn't thought possible."

The Burniskes have seen results.

"You bet," Gary Burniske said. "If we didn't, neither of us would be in this line of work."

He recalled returning to a Guatemalan village where he'd worked as a Peace Corps consultant a dozen years ago.

"I looked at the trees we had planted, and they were so big."

But that wasn't the most important seed that took root.

"The region had gone through a civil conflict, and many of the people I had worked with were dead or missing. But they passed on a lot of their knowledge and values to their sons.

"I ran into some of those sons. Now they are in their early 20s, and working in community efforts," Burniske said. "Those kids really impressed me. It gave me the most wonderful feeling."

Seeing the world

* TAJIKISTAN: Central Asia republic of 6.1 million that declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991

* MERCY CORPS: Nonprofit organization based in Portland that has provided $640 million in aid to 74 countries since 1979

* DIRT POOR: Gary Burniske knows what happens when a country clears its forests, overfarms its land and overgrazes its pastures: "Haiti is running out of soil. It used to be the breadbasket of the Caribbean. We had to look between rocks to find places to plant trees."

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By Kathleen on Tuesday, May 13, 2003 - 7:46 am: Edit Post

To Gary Burniske,
Fellow UMASS alum... I would like to chat with you about Tajikistan.

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