Fertiliser Ban Hits Afghan Farmers
Farmers in Kapisa province of eastern Afghanistan say their harvests have gone into drastic decline since the government banned chemical fertilisers that can be used to make bombs.
President Hamed Karzai ordered a ban on imports and sales of ammonium nitrate last year, on the grounds that the chemical had been detected in roadside bombs planted by insurgents.
Farmers in Kapisa’s Tagab district say the loss of chemical fertilisers has slashed local agricultural production.
Nur Agha, from the village of Adazai, said, “When I was using ammonium nitrate, I was selling 420 kilograms of dried prunes a year. Last year, after the fertiliser was banned, I harvested just 70 kilograms of plums as the fruit dropped before it was ripe.”
The farmer said he now believed Afghanistan’s international allies “want us to lose our livelihoods and be forced to go to war”.
Eight out of ten Afghans are involved in agriculture or animal husbandry, but chronic underdevelopment and years of war mean the farming sector is always on the edge. Even when ammonium nitrate was allowed, growing crops was an arduous task based on manual labour, and farmers were lucky to make a subsistence living.
A local elder in Tagab who did not want to be named said the plum trees in his orchard had yellowing leaves and dropped their fruit prematurely. He compared the fertiliser ban to the outlawing of opium production – in both cases the authorities had failed to come up with a workable alternative.
“We’re fed up with orders from the government. One day, they tell us not to grow poppy as it’s harmful to their foreign friends. The next, they tell us not to use this [fertiliser], again because it harms their foreign friends,” he said. “Promises of assistance haven’t been delivered on…. I am left with an orchard that isn’t productive because there’s no ammonium nitrate since the government ban, and there is no alternative fertiliser.”
Cereal farmers paint a similar picture.
“When the wheat starts growing ears, the foliage turns yellow. The ears are mostly empty, as well,” Kapisa resident Sayed Ajan said. “I used to harvest 11 tons of wheat a year and sell it on, but I only got four tons last year so I had to buy in more for myself.”
Exports of dried fruits to South Asia are a major revenue source for Afghanistan. Ikram, a merchant involved in the trade in Tagab, says he managed to dispatch just over one ton of dried prunes to India last year, compared with his earlier annual average of three tons. He said the lower production resulted not only in limited supply but also in higher farm-gate prices for wholesale buyers like him.
“When quantities are low, our costs go up…. Right now we aren’t making much of a profit,” he said.
The shift in wholesale prices has forced another trader, Hadi, to stop exporting pomegranates to Pakistan altogether this year.
“As crop levels fell, prices increased. Last year, we would have bought two tons of pomegranates for 500 dollars, but this year the price is 1,200 dollars because market demand is high,” he explained. “I personally have stopped doing this business.”
In the neighbouring Parwan province, Abdul Wadud, who lectures at the local agricultural institute, said many farmers had come to him to ask about the problem.
“The symptoms… as explained by the farmers indicate that the cause is lack of nitrogen,” he said.
Abdul Wadud said the government should have started providing alternative forms of fertiliser when it stopped sales of ammonium nitrate.
In Tagab, farmers said they had applied for help to agriculture officials several times, without success.
Government officials are sending out mixed messages on the issue.
Abdul Ghias, head of the provincial agriculture department, told IWPR that the ammonium nitrate ban had had no discernable effect.
“As far as I can see, the absence of this fertiliser has had no impact on product quantities,” he said. “I disagree with the claims the farmers are making. It may be that pests have reduced their productivity.”
While agriculture officials would offer help if crops could be shown to be infested or diseased, he said, there was no question of paying compensation for fertilisers withdrawn from sale.
“The use of ammonium nitrate has been prohibited and we have to implement these orders,” he said.
However, a spokesman for the agriculture ministry held out some hope of assistance.
“Our agriculture officials will conduct research on the damage done to the farmers’ crops. If their crops have been reduced by the lack of fertilisers, we are prepared to compensate farmers and provide them with the assistance they need,” spokesman Majid Qarar said.
He added that two other types of fertilisers were being made available, and should fill the gap left by ammonium nitrate.
Maiwand Safi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kapisa province, Afghanistan.