Herat Farmers Ditching Poppy for Saffron

Could world’s most expensive spice be answer to search for alternative to poppy cultivation?

Herat Farmers Ditching Poppy for Saffron

Could world’s most expensive spice be answer to search for alternative to poppy cultivation?

Abdul Samad has given up growing poppy. The farmer from Gulmir, a village in Pashtun Zarghon district of Herat province, has happily switched to saffron.

“I always felt sinful when I was growing poppy,” he said. “The money brought me no joy, and did not allow me to change my life.”

In 2007, Afghanistan was supplying more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium poppy, the raw material for heroin.

Abdul Samad grew the illegal crop for five years until a new government programme helped him make the switch to saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.

“I make more money than I used to,” he said. “With poppy, I got between 400 and 600 US dollars for each jerib of land. Now I make more than 5,000 dollars.” A jerib is approximately half an acre.

Saffron is prized for its taste and colour, and is used in food and dyes. People in Herat use it to brew tea when they can afford it. A small knot of the substance weighing barely five grammes costs close to 25 dollars, a bit steep for people who may be making no more than 200 dollars per month.

But saffron is catching on. Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi, head of the marketing department for the Herat department of agriculture, estimates that the province now has 212 hectares planted in saffron. He believes that if NGOs help local farmers, annual production will approach 50-70 tonnes after 6 years. This is still miniscule, compared to the 7,700 tonnes of opium that Afghanistan produced on 157,000 hectares in 2008, but it is a start.

It may take more secure international outlets for the saffron before the naturally conservative poppy farmers make the switch in bigger numbers, however.

The world price of saffron has skyrocketed over the past few years, and is now running at about 3,000 dollars per kilogramme. Rumours that it may prove therapeutic in cancer treatment has caused demand to spike even further.

This is good news for Afghan farmers, who are looking for an alternative to poppy. The banned opium plant is expensive to harvest, creates the risk of police involvement and possible eradication, and, worst of all, brings in much less money than it used to. The price of black tar opium has fallen precipitously over the past three years, mainly due to overproduction.

Experts say that saffron is being grown in 16 provinces of Afghanistan, including Balkh and Kapisa, but the bulk of the product comes from Herat, in the west of the country on the border with Iran.

Saffron has a history in Herat stretching back more than 80 years. The first plants were cultivated in the Hauz-e-Karbos area of the province, and in 1973-74 the government conducted experiments in saffron cultivation.

But war intervened, and the project was dropped. Not until 1991-92, with the influx of returnees from Iran, was saffron reintroduced. Iran, jealously guarding its near-monopoly on saffron in the region, did not allow saffron bulbs to be exported. The enterprising Afghans smuggled them in.

“The returnees from Iran brought bulbs with them, illegally, and began to grow saffron in Ghoreyan district,” said Ahmadi.

When the Taleban took over in 1996, they encouraged farmers to grow poppy, said Abdul Qader, a farmer from Pashtun Zarghon.

“The Taleban were buying our harvest for a very high price,” he explained. “Many saffron farms were destroyed, and converted to poppy.”

Poppy cultivation rose quickly, said Qader, since drugs were the main funding source for the Taleban. But in 2000-2001, the Taleban banned poppy. Some see savvy marketing behind the prohibition.

“When the price of opium dropped on world markets in 2000-2001, [Taleban leader] Mullah Omar issued a decree banning poppy,” said Ahmadi. “They wanted to boost the price of poppy in world markets.”

Once the Taleban were routed in 2001, farmers returned to the lucrative poppy, joining an Afghanistan-wide movement that made the country the number one opium producer in the world.

Drug money funds the insurgency and fuels government corruption, hindering development and threatening to turn Afghanistan into a pariah state. The search for an alternative to poppy has been going on for several years, and some think that saffron might be the answer.

The government of Herat, with assistance from the local, Italian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, began to distribute saffron bulbs free of charge to those willing to make the switch.

Saffron grows well in Herat’s hot, dry climate, say farmers. It is also easier and cheaper to grow and harvest than poppy.

“Saffron does not need a lot of water,” said Abdul Qader. “It does not need a lot of fertiliser, and you need fewer people to harvest it.” Also, he added, the bulbs, once planted, were productive for six years.

Like Abdul Samad, Qader said that his life had improved dramatically since he began to grow saffron.

“This plant has brought blessings to our land,” he said. “During the first three years I was making one kilogramme of saffron per jerib of land. But by the fifth year I was getting three kilogrammes.”

The value of his land has also increased, he explained. Before farmers began growing saffron in the area a jerib of land sold for 70,000 afghani (1,400 dollars). The price has now more than doubled to 150,000 afghani.

According to Mohammad Hashem Aslami, saffron expert and head of the agriculture section of the Danish organisation DACAAR in Herat, Afghan saffron, particularly the Herati variety, is the best in the world.

“There are three reasons for our high quality,” he explained. “First, we have the right climate; second, we harvest by hand; and third, we have a very great capacity for production.”

Ghafar Hamidzai, director of Afghanistan’s largest saffron company, Afghan Saffron, agrees. “If the farmers use the right methods of cultivation and harvesting, Afghanistan’s saffron will be the best,” he said. “We are attracting a lot of attention from western markets.”

Saffron could be a boon to Afghanistan’s agricultural export industry if it is properly managed, according to the agriculture department’s Ahmadi.

“Over the next six years, if farmers receive help from the government and NGOs, the production of saffron will increase to 50-70 tonnes per year,” he told IWPR. “This is a very positive step for the development and prosperity of this country and the region.”

But help from the Afghan government has been slow in coming, complain the farmers.

“The ministry of agriculture encouraged us to plant saffron, and promised us lots of assistance,” said Qader. “But they have not done anything for us yet.”

Not true, says Ahmadi. His office distributed saffron bulbs to the farmers free of charge, he insisted. They sponsored some of them to go to Kabul for training, and they are working on getting Afghan saffron into international markets.

Hajji Toryalia Rausi, an official of the Herat chamber of commerce, told IWPR that farmers had not asked his organisation for help.

“The farmers have not told us about problems with marketing of saffron,” he said. “If they provide information on their rate of production, we can approve a specific and stable rate for their product.”

But still, says DACAAR’s Aslami, Afghanistan’s farmers require more substantive support.

“It would be difficult for Afghanistan to compete with Iran on saffron production,” he told IWPR. “We still lack a comprehensive plan.”

Farooq Faizi is an IWPR trainee in Herat.
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