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

Melon Crop Under Threat

Failure of efforts to stop the melon fly prompts farmers in the north to consider giving up the crop.
By Ahmad Kawoosh
Across the north, huge piles of sweet melons are appearing along the region’s roadsides, sold to motorists and passersby for about 100 afghani (two US dollars) apiece.

Trucks full of them sweep into the cities, where, for a few months, the fruit graces the tables of residents at almost every meal.

Many farmers make their entire living in this short season, which begins as summer turns into autumn. They earn enough in sales to support themselves and their families through the long winter.

But now this wealth of the north is under attack – from a small parasite known as the melon fly. It attacks the fruit from the inside, leaving the flesh full of holes, with a sour smell and unfit for consumption.

“I have lost half my harvest,” sighed Mohammad Aslam, a farmer in Daulatabad district of Balkh, leaning on his shovel. “I have not been able to beat this fly.”

Buyers who cut into their purchase to find it spoiled simply heave it through the car window, or abandon it by the side of the road.

In Mazar-e-Sharif, rotting melons are clogging the sewers and creating a slippery hazard on the streets.

The problem has been growing for several years, but has finally reached crisis point. Many farmers are now refusing to grow melons, and next year the traditional grass huts, or chaila, where farmers live in summer months to guard their crop from poachers and animals, may all but disappear from the melon fields in Balkh, Baghlan, and Kunduz provinces.

No one knows the exact origin of the melon fly. Some specialists say that it originated in India, and is causing problems all across the region.

Kateb Shams, the director of agriculture in Balkh, has a more original explanation. He insists that the drugs mafia introduced the melon fly to the province in order to encourage farmers to abandon melons for the more lucrative poppy. If so, the plan failed. Balkh has been certified poppy-free for the third year in a row, leaving farmers reliant on their traditional fruit.

The flies attack the melons when the fruit is just developing, burrowing in through the thin skin. They lay their eggs inside, and in three months exit the melon, again through small holes.

The whole north has been affected by the plague, including the provinces of Balkh, Faryab, Jowzjan, Kunduz, Baghlan and Samangan.

The government has tried to help, but farmers say it is too little, too late.

Last year, the Balkh office for the protection of plants announced that it had all but beaten the fly by treating much of the land with insecticide. By 2009, it maintained, the problem would be solved.

This was an overstatement, according to senior agriculture official Kateb Shams. But he did not agree that the situation was hopeless. Mobile units are working in all districts of Balkh to help farmers, he said, and he advised melon growers to take action on their own.

Among his advice: bury the melon seeds more than 70 centimetres below the surface where the flies cannot reach them; cover the young fruit with plastic bags to protect against flies; irrigate the melon fields during the winter, so that flies and their eggs will freeze; and grow something else for a few years to deprive the flies of their food and they will die out.

But he acknowledged that these home-grown remedies are not nearly as effective as a new product being supplied to farmers this year, the insecticide deltamethrin.

Engineer Mohammad Omran, who heads the plant protection office, insists that deltamethrin poses no health risk to people or animals. But farmers do not believe that the chemicals will kill the fly while leaving their animals intact. In fact, many are afraid for their own health.

In past years, farmers were given a variety of insecticides, seldom understanding exactly what they were using, and receiving little instruction in their proper use.

“I sprayed my fields with what they gave me,” said Noorullah, a farmer in Chelgazi village of Balkh, speaking last spring. “When I treated my melon crop, I left my donkey on the land but when I came back to my fields in the afternoon, the donkey had died.”

Others complained of headaches and vomiting after they had treated their fields.

Worst of all, the chemicals seemed to have little effect against the fly.

“I did whatever the [agricultural officials] told me these last years, but it has had zero effect,” said Sayed Nader, from Shulgara district of Balkh. “I spent a lot of money on insecticide, but it hasn’t helped at all.”

So now farmers are angry, and blame the government.

“The government efforts to fight the flies were only symbolic,” said Amir Mohammad, who lives in Chamtal district in Balkh province.

“The government is late in reacting to the problem,” said Sheikh Ahmad of Balkh district. “They should have started sooner with their efforts to combat the melon fly, as well as grasshoppers and other insects. Now they give medicine after the patient has already died.”

Many are threatening to abandon melon-growing altogether.

This would be a great loss of income for the region, according to Sayed Taher Roshanzada, the director of the chamber of commerce and industry in Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province.

“Previously our melons and watermelons where exported to all provinces of Afghanistan,” he said. “Hundreds of tons also went to Pakistan and India.”

The Balkh authorities, for their part, place the blame right back on the farmers.

“If the farmers would just listen to us and do what we tell them, we would be able to get rid of this disease,” Omran said.

Ahmad Kawoosh and Baryalai Jalalzai are IWPR trainees based in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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