Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fears for Pistachio Harvest

Afghanistan’s third most important crop looks set for a downturn after drought, disease and decimation by returning refugees.
By Khadem Ali

Afghanistan’s economy is bracing itself for another blow with the news that the country’s valuable pistachio industry is estimated to yield only two thirds of last year’s crop.

The prized nut trees have been decimated by drought and disease, and have been plundered by returning refugees who seek hot-burning firewood to keep their families warm during Afghanistan’s cold nights. Harvesters who ignored a Ministry of Agriculture ban on collecting pistachios too early in the season have also hit the crop hard.

The harvest is now underway throughout the country’s northern provinces, and estimates are that the yield will be one third down on last year and the gathering time will only end up being half as long as the usual 12 days.

For generations, people have ventured into the forests to collect the prized wild nuts, in financial terms the country’s third most important crop after raisins and almonds. Afghan pistachios are smaller and greener and fetch a higher price than the variety grown in neighbouring Iran, which is the world’s largest producer with 49.8 per cent of world production.

The pistachio crop is a vital source of extra cash for local residents, and the money earned from harvest – from 70 to 280 US dollars per person – is traditionally used to buy clothing and other necessary items. In recent years, the harvest has averaged 1300 tonnes and generated 13 million dollars annually.

A few kilometres from the northern town of Samangan, along the Rabatak road, pistachio trees could once be seen stretching out towards the horizon, but the view is markedly different today. Tree stumps now dot the land where the wild nuts once flourished.

Local leaders, officials from the government ministries and international agencies have now met to implement a number of measures to protect the wild pistachio and secure the industry.

Dr Noor Gul Hamza Khail, director of the fruit and vegetable division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, has been given funds for a project to genetically categorise the 20 varieties of nut growing in the country and determine where each can be cultivated best. “It won’t take much money to establish pistachio plantations in the fertile soil of Afghanistan,” he said.

Another positive development for the preservation of the wild pistachio is the creation of the so-called Green Guard, a group of men charged with protecting the country’s forests from loggers and residents who plunder the trees for firewood and building materials.

Around 300 Green Guards are already patrolling the forests of eastern Afghanistan, and their numbers will gradually be boosted to cover the entire country. Protecting the trees from indiscriminate logging will also benefit the wild pistachio, as will plans to extend the electricity network in the region. It is hoped that an increase in the power supply will result in fewer trees being cut down for cooking and lighting.

Aside from the economic benefits of the wild pistachio, Khail said, the nut groves must be preserved for environmental and aesthetic reasons as well. The roots of the plants penetrate to a depth of 20 metres and assist in preventing erosion and maintaining moisture in the soil, which allows other crops to flourish.

“The preservation of the wild pistachio is an important part of Afghanistan’s effort to conserve what few forests it has left,” he said.

Kadam Ali Nekpay is a freelance journalist in Kabul