Amidst the awkward and disturbing coronavirus pandemic, Afghan farmers who gave up poppy cultivation in the southern province of Kandahar are feared to go back into poppy farming, especially in extreme poverty-ridden areas such as Zhari district in the southern province of Kandahar, mostly inhabited by ethnic Pashtun people. Practically forced to return to poppy cultivation to fight against penury, a few farmers told Radio Free Afghanistan that the pandemic has aggravated the uncertainty.

And so cultivation of poppies ensures them survival as it’s the best cash crop in the impoverished country. “There are no factories or other businesses here that can offer employment. Our prospects have been ravaged by drought,” said Noor Agha, a young farmer in rural Zhari district. When the poor villagers have not been receiving subsidies or assistance from the government, the choice obviously is to grow poppies. Now the land under poppy cultivation has increased in Zhari, Maiwad, and Kandahar districts where poppy cultivation remain stopped for five years in a row.

In reality, the poppy fields remain albeit in a dormant state, despite nearly two decades of multibillion-dollar projects to eradicate poppy farming culture. The Taliban thrive on the poppies, earning millions of dollars annually from the trade, thanks to unholy coalescence between the drug mafia and the dominant section of pro-government elites. In 2017, opium cultivation in the land-locked country reached a record high, with opium harvest that generated anywhere between 550-900 tons of export quality (purity between 50 and 70 per cent) heroin, valued at between US$ 4.1 to 6.6 billion, or 20 and 32 per cent of GDP, according to the UN office of Drugs and crime.

This is very frustrating for those who were looking up to a new rural perspective with replacement of poppy growing areas by saffron in districts adjacent to Kandahar. The dream of saffron cultivation was born a few years back at a government agricultural research farm in the fringe areas of the city of Kandahar. Farmers and agricultural workers started steadily growing tiny purple flowers substituting for bright red flowers of opium poppy which was linked to terrorism. The experiment generated optimism for most of the state officials in the region. They hailed the experiment so far as a success story.

The soil in Kandahar is fertile (alluvial soil) very suitable for saffron crop that appropriately fits l into the crop cycles in southern Afghanistan. Saffron plants require water when other crops like wheat, pomegranates, and grapes don’t need it, said Noor Mohammad Ahmadi, a researcher at the Kokran Agricultural Research Farm. The agro-climate is ideal for resilient saffron crops that withstand temperatures ranging from minus 18 to 40 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 to 104 Fahrenheit), he added. In fact, it was perceived as a replication trial, following the on-going success story in the western Afghan province of Herat, where fertile soil, mild winters, and dry summers augur well for saffron crop. Saffron is one of the spices that fetch very high price and thus can be a lucrative crop for Afghan farmers. Sayed Hafizullah Saeedi, director of the Agricultural Ministry in Kandahar, said a year back that saffron would soon replace opium poppie.

“The environmental and climatic conditions for saffron are ideal in Kandahar, and our experiments over the past three years show that it is capable of replacing opium poppies. Luckily saffron needs little water, which is why many farmers in the region are asking us to help them adopt it.”

But the policy-framers in Kabul seem myopic in assigning due importance to promotion of saffron cultivation for which international donors came forward to help Afghan farmers switch to saffron and rid themselves of dependence on cultivating opium poppies, hitherto the best cash crop in impoverished Afghanistan.

The saffron aspiration is now feared to evaporate. The inhabitants of Zhari district have to keep from a wolf at the door as the cost of basic staples such as wheat flour, cooking oil, and sugar as costing more than a $100 to feed an average family every month. Money lenders who also collect and purchase opium paste from the farmers are around to allure them back to poppy growing, thus tying them again to vicious cycle where terrorists call the shots. Drug traffickers both large and small who used to rack in large profits on Afghan opium are waiting in the wings .They are important players in the global regime of heroin and opium.

Afghan heroin is a headache for the US, especially after the deadly opiate epidemic in the USA which killed 64,000 people there in 2016. The problematic is that the USA or any other countries can do little to reduce the opiate production in Afghanistan, threatening the already precarious security situation and the attendant violence. The nebulous political power in the see-saw conflict between the Afghan President Asraf Ghani and the erstwhile Chief Executive Officer of the Unity Government Abdullah Abdullah is a hurdle towards clicking a wayout.

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