Can saffron replace poppy?
PASHTON ZARGON, 6 August 2008 (IRIN) - Mohammad
Tahir was dubious about not growing poppy on his
one-acre plot of land in Pashton Zargon District,
Herat Province, western Afghanistan this year, but has
now made a decision.
"I will not cultivate opium this year. I will only
grow saffron this time," the young farmer, who feeds
an extended family, told IRIN.
"It [saffron] is a legitimate crop and also the
profit is 'halal' [in accordance with Islamic law],"
Tahir has been tempted to grow saffron crocuses
having seen fellow farmers earn handsomely from their
saffron fields last year.
Afghanistan accounts for 90 percent of the world's
opium and heroin - the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
has reported, and much of the money fuels armed
insurgency and organised crime, experts say.
In a bid to eradicate opium production,
international donors have been supporting the Afghan
government with money and technical assistance:
programmes have been funded to promote alternative
livelihoods, uproot poppies and apprehend drug
However these measures have not stopped Afghanistan
achieving record-levels of opium production, officials
Demand for saffron bulbs has soared among farmers
in Herat and neighbouring provinces over the past two
years, according to the provincial Department of
Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL).
"We plan to distribute 49 tonnes of saffron bulbs
to farmers in Herat and 11 other provinces this year,"
said DAIL official Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi, adding that
the number of farmers requesting the bulbs had
increased to over 1,000.
Farmers cultivate saffron bulbs in late August and
reap the purple flowers in mid October. The red
filaments of saffron - the aromatic thread-like
substances globally used for a variety of purposes,
including herbal medicine, colour dyes, perfume and
food seasoning - are then collected from each flower
by hand, often by women at home.
One hectare of land can produce about 12kg of
saffron and each kilogram fetches US$1,500 in Herat's
main bazaar, according to Ahmadi.
According to Wikipedia, saffron prices at wholesale
and retail rates range from $1,100 to $11,000 per
kilo. In Western countries, the average retail price
is $2,200 per kilo [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saffron].
Donors such as the UK's Department for
International Development have funded projects to
promote saffron production in Afghanistan. A handful
of entrepreneurs have also invested in the packaging,
branding and export of Afghan-made saffron to regional
and European markets.
Afghanistan's western neighbour, Iran, is a leading
"Saffron is not only a legitimate crop but also a
very lucrative one, which has strong potential to
replace poppy cultivation," Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman
for the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN), told IRIN.
The MCN, in collaboration with some donors and
non-governmental organisations, has tried to introduce
and promote saffron and other highly profitable crops
in poppy cultivating provinces such as Helmand,
Nangarhar and Kandahar, Afzali said.
Experts at the Ministry of Agriculture in Kabul
said saffron was compatible with the climate and soil
of southern, eastern and western parts of the country
and its cultivation did not require highly advanced
irrigation, which the country lacks.
However, insecurity and narcotics gangs have
hindered government efforts to replace poppy with
licit crops, Afzali said: "Criminal groups and
anti-government elements who earn big profits from
illicit poppy cultivation oppose and impede saffron
cultivation by forcing farmers to grow poppy."
Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a
project the Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and
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the views of the United Nations or its agencies.