Livelihoods Hing in the Balance

Poverty, desperation and poor leadership are combining to deplete one of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports: the root sap called hing.

Livelihoods Hing in the Balance

Poverty, desperation and poor leadership are combining to deplete one of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports: the root sap called hing.

Wednesday, 2 March, 2005

In the Dooshi region of Baghlan province, young Fakhrullah digs carefully in the earth to a depth of about 20 cm. He digs until he reaches a root, which he then taps in several places to obtain a foul-smelling yellow sap known as hing.


It may not be pleasant, but the medicine made from this stinking sap is relied upon across the world and brings much-needed income to rural areas of Afghanistan.


Hing, or Ferula asafoetida in Latin, has a number of medicinal qualities and is used to treat a wide range of illnesses from asthma to stomach parasites. It is especially popular in India and Pakistan.


But poverty, desperation and poor administration have led to a depletion of the crop, prompting fears that the poverty-stricken country is about to lose yet another money-earner.


Fakhrullah looks after around 500 anghoza bushes, which produce the higher-quality hing that sells for more than 30 US dollars a kilo, and another 2,000 chaheer bushes, which yield inferior resin worth only two dollars for the same amount.


By tapping these plants, which thrive in northern Afghanistan’s dry mountainous areas, Fakhrullah can make around 500 dollars a season.


However, international demand has led to the crop being over-harvested, leaving Fakhrullah and his colleagues to dig in the Dooshi earth for fresh roots in a bid to secure their livelihoods.


In the past, village elders have regulated the allocation of bushes and overseen the “rest” period for tapping. But over time, greed and the breakdown of the authority of elders has meant the plants are tapped more frequently than they should be.


A decline in the amount of hing exported from Afghanistan over the past decade has exacerbated the problem: as the prices rise, the temptation to over-farm the crop becomes irresistible.


Shafi Mohammad, vice president of Kabul’s Sultanzada Export Centre of Hing, told IWPR that 11 years ago, Afghanistan exported around 10,000 tons of the sap but is expected to ship only a tenth of that amount in 2002.


This drop in supply has driven up the price from 20 dollars per kilo for high-quality hing to 32 dollars.


Analysts believe that this shortage will lead to even lower amounts being produced in years to come, as higher prices motivate people to harvest the sap more frequently than they should.


A root can be tapped around 12 to 14 times in a season, after which the bush should be allowed to rest for eight years before it is harvested again.


In addition, some rural residents, not realising the value of the plant, use the roots for firewood.


Ghulam Haider, director of forestry and medicinal plants for the agriculture ministry, told IWPR that the hing produced by Afghanistan is exported to Pakistan and India, where it is used in the manufacture of pills and syrups.


Some is then imported back to Kabul, as Afghanistan has no domestic pharmaceutical industry.


Qadam Ali Nekpai is a journalist working in Kabul.


Pakistan, Afghanistan
Support our journalists