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Afghan farmers turn from opium's red poppies to saffron's red gold

A new project in Afghanistan encourages farmers to switch from cultivating opium poppies to saffron. But Taliban threats keep farmers from planting one the world's most expensive spices on a large scale.

A saffron farmers in Afghanistan

Saffron yield a fragrant spice that could replace poppy fields

Responsible for some 90 percent of the world's opium supply, Afghanistan has become the largest producer of the drug over the last decade, and proceeds from sales in the illegal drugs often land in the hands of Taliban.

In attempt to improve the situation, the Afghan government has instituted a policy of burning poppy fields, but some experts have said offering farmers an alternative source of income would be a better way to deal with the problem.

In Herat Province in western Afghanistan, a small project is proving a resounding success by switching from opium poppy cultivation to saffron flowers. The initiative, which provides farmers with free saffron bulbs to plant in their fields, is coordinated by the Italian military forces stationed in the region together with the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Making the switch

Person holding saffron flowers in her hands

Saffron - over 100,000 flowers are needed to make one kilogram of the spice

For centuries saffron has been considered the most precious of all spices. It has a fragrant, pungent flavor and a rich red color which creates shades of bright yellow and orange when mixed with rice. In Europe, it is the most expensive spice on the market, costing an average of 10 euros ($14) per gram.

While Iran is the main producer of saffron, Herat Province has dry weather and soil conditions which are ideal for the plant. Some 300 tons of the spice are produced worldwide each year.

Afghan farmers can more than double their income with saffron. While a hectare (2.5 acres) of opium poppies is worth 2,200 euros to 3,700 euros, a hectare of saffron is worth up to 8,800 euros ($12,000). But rural communities are often paid in advance by the Taliban, while it takes two years to produce a crop of saffron flowers.

The proposal to switch is attractive since farmers receive the saffron bulbs free of charge and because the government has implemented a policy of burning poppy fields, but many farmers in remote villages are still frightened of repercussions and need reassurance that they will be protected.

Persuading farmers to take a risk

Taliban terror - miltants attacked a shopping center in Kabul earlier this year

Taliban terror - miltants attacked a shopping center in Kabul earlier this year

"The Taliban send the farmers some papers in which they tell the farmers not to change the cultivation or they or their family are going to be killed," said Lt. Silvia Guberti of the Italian Alpine force, who recently returned to Italy after six months in Herat.

Guberti said opposition to the project has been obvious in the northern part of the province still has an active Taliban presence.

"We went there to distribute seven tons of saffron bulbs and our convoy was attacked," Guberti said. "The two trucks with the saffron bulbs were burned and the drivers killed. After a month we brought the farmers the saffron bulbs with helicopters.

"The farmers want to change because they want to reintegrate with their society and the new Afghan government," Guberti added.

Italian Commander Colonel Emanuele Aresu said the project gives Afghan farmers the ability to turn away from the drug trade and increase security in their country.

"Cultivating opium make terrorists rich," Aresu said. "The production of saffron, starting from the bulbs offered by us, is instead a profitable source of income for them."

Good investment for Afghan women

When safety can be guaranteed, the fruits of the project pay off. It takes 120,000 to 150,000 saffron flowers to produce one kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of the spice, which is produced by drying the flowers' threadlike red stigmata. Each stigma has to be individually removed from each flower by hand.

One district of Herat now has an association of 480 female saffron producers. The Ghoryan Women's Saffron Association is the first all-female business venture in the area and Guberti said he hopes more will set up similar associations in the future.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman gathers saffron flowers at a farm in Pampore

Saffron is also cultivated in India

Fruit farmer and distributor Hedayatullah Omarkhil, president of the Afghan Apricot Association, said he hopes Afghanistan's saffron growers will be able to claim a share of the export market currently dominated by Iran.

"Now we're competing with Iran and I think they're a bit scared of our saffron growing because we're growing better quality saffron," he said.

Not a miracle crop

Although a hectare of saffron flowers yields 10 kg of the spice; the spice cannot be considered a miracle alternative.

"The world market for saffron is much less than for opium," explained Ghulam Rasoul Samadi of Kabul University's Faculty of Agriculture, who pointed out that the country also has a devastated socio-economic status. "There's only a good market for opium."

Omarkhil agreed that saffron alone cannot solve the opium problem. In addition to security guarantees for farmers who want to switch from opium poppy cultivation, he said there also needs to be more investment in trade and export.

Establishing a stable and efficiently managed market for Afghanistan's produce, including saffron, is now of paramount importance for the country's future, he added.

"I think agriculture is the key to stopping the war," said Omarkhil. "In Afghanistan more than 80 percent of the people are connected directly or indirectly to agriculture. So if agriculture is better, life is better."

Author: Dany Mitzman

Editor: Louisa Schaefer

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