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

The Saffron Substitute

Local agricultural officials advance idea of growing world's most expensive spice as way to curb country’s drug trade.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

Cultivating the world's most expensive spice is being considered as a means to stamp out opium poppies in northern Afghanistan.


Dozens of farmers have approached the ministry of agriculture about planting saffron since a crop-substitution scheme was first aired on state television last month.


"I will be so happy if I can grow saffron,” said Asan Qauli, a farmer from Balkh district, who travelled to Mazar-e-Sharif to find out more about the idea. “And the people I know and have heard about it they are also so happy it will be good for our pockets."


High quality saffron, famous for its vivid colouring as well as the flavour it imparts to dishes around the world, fetches hundreds of dollars a kilo when sold in the West. Even at the farm gate, measure for measure it fetches more than any other crop local farmers can grow, including opium, for which they currently receive about 200 dollars per kilo.


The television report said that the local ministry of agriculture was seeking cooperation from the new Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif to provide local farmers with saffron bulbs.


Iran, along with Kashmir, is one of the major saffron-growing regions of the world. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is the world’s major opium producing country.


Sayed Azizullah Hashimi, the area’s most senior agricultural official, who was involved with saffron cultivation while living as a refugee in Iran, is enthusiastic.


"We will send out communication teams to inform the farmers about the benefits of saffron in different areas of Mazar and all northern provinces,” he said. "We will encourage the farmers to grow saffron rather then poppies."


Hashimi said he thinks the local conditions are right to grow saffron. Although the plants would need more water than poppies, they would still require less irrigation than most other crops, especially wheat.


He also noted that harvesting saffron - the dried stamen of crocus flowers which must be plucked by hand - is labour intensive, thereby creating more local jobs.


Ali Asghar Rastina, the first secretary at the Iranian consulate in Mazar, emphasised that no decision had yet been taken on such a project.


But Rastina added that “if farmers start growing saffron instead of poppies, Iran will also [benefit]” because of the negative impact Afghanistan’s drug production currently has on his country.


Balkh and neighbouring provinces of northwest Afghanistan are relatively insignificant opium producers by Afghan standards but are following the national trend with a sharp rise in cultivation.


In its 2003 Opium Survey, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC, estimated a 400 per cent increase in poppy growing in Balkh province.


Not everyone thinks switching from poppies to saffron will curb Afghanistan's most popular cash crop. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, FAO, in Afghanistan said that it had not heard of this particular proposal but in a written statement programme manager Manfred Staab flatly told IWPR, “There is no miracle.”


“Every two weeks someone discovers a new magic crop to substitute for poppy,” Staab wrote. But to effectively eradicate the country’s opium industry, Staab said the country needs greater assistance for agriculture as well as a strictly-enforced ban on growing the crop.


A report by the British Select Committee on International Development found that crop-substitution is rarely successful. It noted that poppies had the advantage for local farmers of being both high value and capable of being grown in very poor conditions.


Still, some local farmers in the fields around Mazar said they’d be willing to consider making a switch but for now they feel they have no choice but to continue growing poppies.


"I have to feed 20 people in my family,” said Abdul, a farmer in the Charbolak district. “If I grow wheat on my land then I will earn only 4000 afghanis [about 80 dollars] in one harvest. I have to grow poppies which earn a lot more than wheat.”


Din Mohammad, who was out weeding his fields, told IWPR, “The main reason for growing poppy is that the growing of wheat and cotton cannot cover our needs.”


What would make him switch? “Any other crop that can fulfill our [economic] needs then we will grow it rather than this crop which is unlawful in our religion,” he said.


Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an independent journalist in Mazar-e-Sharif. Local staff reporter Hasina Rasuli also contributed to this report.


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