Afghan Saffron Venture Hit by Taliban

By Sadeq Behnam

HERAT, Afghanistan, December 17, 2010 (ENS) – Farmers taking part in an internationally-backed saffron-growing project in Herat province in western Afghanistan say they are being targeted by Taliban militants who want them to cultivate opium poppies instead.

Insurgents in areas north of Herat city have destroyed fields planted with saffron, and last month attacked two trucks carrying bulbs for planting. Both drivers were killed and their vehicles torched.

Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi of Herat’s agriculture department described what happened. “The Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team had promised to provide farmers in Kushk-e Kohna and Rabat-e Sangi districts with seven tons of saffron bulbs,” he said. “When the bulbs were being transported out to these districts, the armed opposition set fire to the trucks and killed the drivers.”

Ahmadi said everyone had been shocked by the incident.

“The farmers had complained in the past that the armed opposition was threatening them over poppy cultivation, but no one ever expected an incident like this to happen,” he said. “The information we’ve received indicates that farmers don’t dare cultivate saffron in the province’s more remote and unstable districts because of Taliban influence.”

Saffron crocus in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees)
Opium poppies in Afghanistan (Photo by Scott Amis)

Mohammad Musa, a farmer in the village of Darz in Kushk district – believed to be second only to Shindand district for its Taliban presence – described his failed attempt to make money out of saffron.

He and other farmers were given some training and issued with saffron bulbs by agriculture officials in Herat city, as part of efforts to wean them off poppies. But six months later, the Taliban began threatening them, and finally destroyed their saffron crops.

“They destroyed three hectares of land where I’d planted saffron,” he said. “My life is ruined – one year’s effort has gone to waste. I don’t know how to pay to sustain my family.”

Mohammad Musa explained why the insurgents disliked saffron. “The Taliban are the main buyers of opium, so they try to force farmers to cultivate poppy, because they can’t sell saffron.”

For farmers who have committed themselves to saffron, the Taliban attack has been disastrous.

Another farmer in Kushk, Shah Mohammad, said he had prepared most of his land for planting saffron and feared he would be left destitute after the two truckloads of bulbs were destroyed.

This former Herat opium poppy grower now grows saffron, and helps other farmers to switch. The Afghan Agriculture Ministry has named him “Baba-i Za’faran” or “Father of Saffron.” (Photo by Hamesha)

“Not only have I been unable to plant wheat this year, but the saffron bulbs haven’t reached us. I do not know how I’m going to get through the coming winter,” he said.

Security officials in Herat acknowledge that the Taliban presence is significant in remoter parts of the province, but insist they are working to extend the reach of government and prevent armed groups from disrupting farming.

Nur Khan Nikzad, Herat police headquarters spokesman, said the insurgents were actively encouraging farmers in several districts to grow the opium poppy, but insisted, “The only districts where opium is probably still being cultivated are the Shindand and Kushk. Our intelligence indicates that the level of opium production [province-wide] has fallen by 90 percent.”

U.S. service members and Afghan growers view a field planted with saffron near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. (Photo by Senior Airman Susan Tracy courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Nikzad said police would take action to protect people if they received complaints.

Farmers like Mohammad Musa have little faith in such promises. “Officials do nothing but bluff. The opposition moves around freely in our area,” he said.

Mullah Sayed Zaher, the head of a parallel administration the Taliban have created in Kushk, admitted responsibility for the attack on the truck.

“We will burn everything the infidels bring into the district. And it’s obligatory to kill those who work with the foreigners,” he said. “As long as my men and I live, I will not allow any resident to receive donations from foreigners, whether it be saffron or anything else.”

Abdullah Halim, an expert on agricultural affairs in Herat, believes the Taliban want to display their power by showing they can make people grow poppy, and also to profit from the lucrative drugs trade.

“It’s the job of government to extend its reach into areas where it currently has little access; it should try to maintain control of this region,” he added.

The saffron crocus plant, whose stamens are harvested mostly for culinary use but also for medicinal purposes, needs little irrigation, is resistant to disease and can be harvested over several successive years.

Saffron is the world’s most costly spice because 70,000 flowers must be picked by hand to yield a pound of saffron spice. (Photo courtesy Steenbergs)

Herat region has become an important producer, generating 1.5 tons a year. That might not seem much, but the stamens fetch US$2,000 a kilogram on the Afghan market, and twice that when exported.

Dealers in saffron say the authorities need to do more to protect the crop.

“There have been many obstacles standing in the way of growing and trading in saffron,” Mohammad Jalil, a leading trader, said “Another major problem has now been added on – hostility to the plan’s cultivation on the part of some in the armed opposition.”

All the investment made to date is now at risk, he said, noting that the attack in Kushk meant a contract with a Danish aid group to supply saffron bulbs to neighboring Faryab province had to be cancelled.

Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel says poppy cultivation in Herat fell by 50 percent last year, thanks to the efforts of his staff and other government agencies, and also because of a disease that blighted poppy plants.

However, he warned that higher prices and increasing demand for opium might now be encouraging farmers to turn back to poppy growing, which would reverse the downward trend.

Meanwhile, farmers like Mohammad Musa feel they are caught between two very different agricultural policies.

“We don’t know what to grow – if we cultivate poppy, the government destroys our lands, and if we grow saffron, the opposition destroys it. We’re the ones who lose,” he said. “If the government can’t protect farmers, it can’t tell us what to grow and what not to grow.”

{This article originally appeared December 10, 2010 in Afghanistan Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.