Copyrighted material


Afghan Farmers Tearing out Historic Pomegranate Trees for Poppies

Mohammad Tahir was dubious about not growing poppy on his one-acre plot of land in Pashton Zargon District, Herat Province, western Afghanistan this year, but has now made a decision.

"I will not cultivate opium this year. I will only grow saffron this time," the young farmer, who feeds an extended family, told IRIN.

"It [saffron] is a legitimate crop and also the profit is 'halal' [in accordance with Islamic law]," he said.

Tahir has been tempted to grow saffron crocuses having seen fellow farmers earn handsomely from their saffron fields last year.

Afghanistan accounts for 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin -- the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported, and much of the money fuels armed insurgency and organized crime, experts say.

In a bid to eradicate opium production, international donors have been supporting the Afghan government with money and technical assistance: programs have been funded to promote alternative livelihoods, uproot poppies and apprehend drug smugglers.

However these measures have not stopped Afghanistan achieving record-levels of opium production, officials say.

Demand for saffron bulbs has soared among farmers in Herat and neighboring provinces over the past two years, according to the provincial Department of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL).

"We plan to distribute 49 tons of saffron bulbs to farmers in Herat and 11 other provinces this year," said DAIL official Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi, adding that the number of farmers requesting the bulbs had increased to over 1,000.

Farmers cultivate saffron bulbs in late August and reap the purple flowers in mid October. The red filaments of saffron -- the aromatic thread-like substances globally used for a variety of purposes, including herbal medicine, color dyes, perfume and food seasoning -- are then collected from each flower by hand, often by women at home.

One hectare of land can produce about 12kg of saffron and each kilogram fetches $1,500 in Herat's main bazaar, according to Ahmadi.

According to Wikipedia, saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from $1,100 to $11,000 per kilo. In Western countries, the average retail price is $2,200 per kilo.

Donors such as the UK's Department for International Development have funded projects to promote saffron production in Afghanistan. A handful of enterpreneurs have also invested in the packaging, branding and export of Afghan-made saffron to regional and European markets.

Afghanistan's western neighbor, Iran, is a leading saffron exporter.

"Saffron is not only a legitimate crop but also a very lucrative one, which has strong potential to replace poppy cultivation," Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman for the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN), told IRIN.

The MCN, in collaboration with some donors and non-governmental organizations, has tried to introduce and promote saffron and other highly profitable crops in poppy cultivating provinces such as Helmand, Nangarhar and Kandahar, Afzali said.

Experts at the Ministry of Agriculture in Kabul said saffron was compatible with the climate and soil of southern, eastern and western parts of the country and its cultivation did not require highly advanced irrigation, which the country lacks.

However, insecurity and narcotics gangs have hindered government efforts to replace poppy with legal crops, Afzali said: "Criminal groups and anti-government elements who earn big profits from illicit poppy cultivation oppose and impede saffron cultivation by forcing farmers to grow poppy."

© IRIN 2008

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   August 5, 2008   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.