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Drug cartels discourage saffron cultivation

in Afghan Business

Drug cartels discourage saffron cultivation

Saffron is yet to emerge as a major alternative to poppy cultivation in Afghanistan due to the presence of international drug lords, who control the lucrative drug commerce, agriculture officials said on Tuesday.

In 2007, Afghanistan produced 95 percent of world’s illicit drugs, Ministry of Counternarcotics Advisor Zabihullah Daim told Pajhwok Afghan News. Over the past 10 years, poppy cultivation has been eradicated in 17 provinces that have been declared poppy-free.

Last year, 131,000 hectares of land were cultivated with the illegal crops and 3,800 hectares of the crop were eradicated by the ministry, the advisor said, while referring to the government’s counternarcotics efforts.

Extension Director at Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) Hokam Khan Hiabibi said they were struggling to introduce saffron cultivation in the country since 2002. The cultivation, started from western Herat province, now covers 620 hectares in 23 provinces — compared to last year’s 500 hectares.

Saffron can be used for colouring, cooking and in the production of herbal medicine, he said, adding since the crop had a good yield, so it was an alternative to poppies. A kilogramme of saffron could be sold for 80,000 afs to 100,000 afs, while the same amount of opium cost about 10,000 afs, he explained.

An acre of land produces 14 kilograms of opium, while the same area yields 200 grammes of saffron in the first year, 500 grammes in the second and two kilogrammes over the next five consecutive years, he explained.

They are draught resistant and only needs irrigation twice or three times a year, compared to poppy plants irrigated six times a year. Another advantage is that growing saffron is legal in Islam, unlike poppy that is prohibited, he said.

To the query why saffron failed to replace poppies, he said the former had been cultivated in Afghanistan over the past 80 years, but saffron farming was relatively new. “In the short time, saffron cannot be an alternative for poppy, but we are trying to replace poppy with saffron in the next 10 years,” he added.

Another reason for the widespread poppy planting is the international mafia that prevents saffron being promoted as an alternative. He said: “Growing it is not only a sin for Afghans, it is also a political game.”

Local mafias are also behind the processing and trafficking of the drugs, it is a good source of income for militants, so the crop is cultivated under the control of warlords in less secure areas, he said. Safety is another challenge to planting saffron because such projects could not be implemented in insecure areas.

If Afghanistan’s agriculture system was revamped and modernised, farmers could plant grapes, pomegranates, other fruits and agricultural crops that would generate more income compared to poppies, he added.

Farmers also avoid growing saffron due to lack of marketing opportunities as the Agriculture Ministry does not provide adequate budget to source proper markets for the crop, he added.

Agriculture Professor at Nangarhar University Mohammad Asif Bawari said farmers were not familiar with saffron growing as it was a difficult farming practice and the crop produced a smaller yield in the first two years, which would burden growers financially.

If farmers were provided assistance and training to grow the crop, they would quit poppy cultivation  and may opt for saffron or other cash crops, he suggested. Other officials said that they had been conducting training programmes to promote saffron cultivation.

Political analyst, Waheed Muzhda, said the narcotics problem was a political game between intelligence agencies of the region and the international drug mafia.

He said according to reports, a staggering $70 billion were generated from poppy sales in Afghanistan but much of the money went to international mafia, while Afghan farmers were fobbed off with peanuts.

“If we look at the history, some analyst wrote books on the opium war between China and British, saying that Britain attacked Afghanistan to capture the military castles from Afghans which were threat for opium caravans,” he said.

During Taliban rule, when their leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a decree banning poppy cultivation, only 20 tonnes of opium were produced a year. But now the production has reached 8,000 tonnes yearly — which suggests it is a complex political game.

If intelligence agencies and international drug cartels are not involved in the business, how opium can be smuggled out of Afghanistan and processing machines imported into the country, he asked.

However, the US embassy in Kabul denied allegations that CIA was behind drug trade and said Americans wanted Afghanistan to be a narcotics-free nation. The US been assisting Afghanistan in counternarcotics efforts.


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