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

Saffron Seen as Alternative to Opium

A new initiative to plant the precious flower may help wean northern farmers away from poppies.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Mohammad Nazir, a farmer in Balkh, proudly holds up a bag of saffron bulbs. “This is the best plant,” he told IWPR. “Now we don’t have to break the law by planting poppies.”

Saffron Tilling Company, a private Afghan company, is distributing saffron bulbs to farmers in northern Afghanistan on a trial basis. While it’s not clear whether local conditions are suitable for cultivating the flower, the company is hoping its plants can provide an economically viable alternative for farmers who currently grow the raw material for much of the world’s opium and heroin.

While previous attempts to introduce substitute crops have failed, company officials think that saffron could succeed because it is one of the most expensive spice plants on earth. The saffron flower yields a long red filament which, when dried, makes a pungent, strongly coloured spice used in medicine and cooking. It takes 75,000 saffron plants to yield one kilogram of the spice.

“You can get two kilograms of saffron from one jerib [2,000 square metres] of land, which will earn 1,500 [US] dollars,” said Sardar Hussein Hashimi, head of Saffron Tilling. Hashimi said he has 10 years’ experience growing saffron in Iran. “The plant is sown in late January and harvested in mid-February, which means that it matures in about 25 days,” he added.

More than 200 jeribs of land in Balkh, Sar-e-Pul, Samangan, Bamian, Panjshir and Parwan provinces have been planted with saffron, according to Hashimi. If the experiment is successful, the company will expand cultivation of the flower across the country in the next few years.

“This year, our aim is to make farmers familiar with the cultivation and harvesting of saffron,” said Hashimi.

Hashimi said his company imported 16,000 kilos of saffron bulbs this year, of which 14,000 kilos have been parcelled out to 100 farmers. The bulbs are being given free of charge, under a contract that stipulates that two-thirds of the harvest will go to the company, with the remaining one-third available for sale by the farmer.

Because demand was so great, the remaining 2,000 kilos were distributed to an additional 1,000 farmers so they too could test the suitability of the crop. Hashimi said there were in fact more than 1,000 farmers who wanted to participate, but the company could not satisfy the demand.

If the experiment is successful, the company will import 200-300 tonnes of saffron bulbs next year to sell to farmers.

Saffron Tilling will establish a saffron market in Afghanistan, but farmers will be free to sell their crop wherever they like, he added.

Government agriculture officials are enthusiastic about the project.

Kateb Shams, head of the agriculture department of Balkh province, is using the company’s bulbs in one of his department’s farms.

“After the company advertised, more than 100 farmers came to us in a single day to ask for bulbs,” he said. “Since they know very little about the benefits of saffron, it shows that farmers are extremely tired of growing poppies.”

Yaqub Roshan, an adviser to the Afghan agriculture minister, told IWPR that the ministry is studying the possibilities for saffron cultivation and is determined to promote saffron in Afghanistan in the next few years.

“We think that distribution of saffron bulbs is a very effective step in creating an alternative to poppy,” he said. “However, we think that private companies may be more effective than the government in promoting saffron cultivation, since saffron is not an indigenous crop in Afghanistan,” he told IWPR.

Mir Shafiuddin Mirzad, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, office in northern Afghanistan, agreed that saffron is the best alternative to poppy in the north but cautioned that there are certain difficulties in promoting it. He said the FAO has conducted a survey of farmers and found they have no interest in the crop.

“Afghan farmers have been growing poppies for some years. They are not going to give it up so easily.”

However, Mirzad said he was happy that a private company was taking on the task of convincing farmers to grow saffron, and promised to provide all possible assistance.

Despite Mirzad’s pessimism, those who showed up to accept Saffron Tilling’s offer of free bulbs appeared more than willing to give the new crop a try.

“We want to cultivate all our lands with saffron,” said Haji Abdul Khalil, a landowner in Balkh province. “We can make 2,000 dollars from one jerib of land with poppy. Saffron earns less, but we prefer it because it isn’t banned by the government, it requires less water, and it’s easier to harvest.”

Hazrat Gul, a resident of Charkent district of Mazar-e-Sharif, also had high hopes for the project. “All the farmers in our village have decided to begin saffron cultivation to replace the poppies,” he said.

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.