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Asia

Afghan farmers weigh up saffron against opium

The Afghan government sees saffron as a good alternative to opium. Some farmers have successfully made the transition, whereas others are sticking to poppy.

Haji Akbar used to grow poppy. It was a lucrative business but he kept getting into trouble with the authorities. Several times he was forced to move on to another province.

But since turning to saffron 15 years ago, he has become a national hero. Nicknamed the "Father of Saffron," he has even been awarded a medal by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He learned how cultivate the expensive spice in Iran when he was living as a poor refugee in the western Afghan province of Herat. Today, he owns a large estate and his own distribution company - his life has changed dramatically.

He told DW he had become so rich he had been able to make a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, had paid for all his children's weddings and bought more land.

Poppy fields in Afghanistan

Poppy crops are often destroyed by authorities

The Afghan government sees saffron not only as a lucrative alternative to poppy but also as a means of fighting opium, whose proceeds finance militancy through different channels. That's why it is supporting model projects so that farmers in the country's south and west can make the transition.

Some 90 percent of the world's opium is still produced in Afghanistan. However, Zabiullah Dayem from the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics said that the projects had helped to reduce the opium production in certain provinces. "There was such a program in Helmand province three years ago, which resulted in a 40 to 45 percent decrease in opium production," he said.

Jalil Ahamad, a wholesale saffron buyer in Herat, explained that farmers who wanted to make the transition needed to have patience above all. "If a farmer grows saffron on 2,000 square meters, he will only obtain 300 grams of saffron in the first year. The yields will increase the next year to 500 grams and to four kilos in the fourth year."

Farmers who grow poppy on 2,000 square meters can count on a harvest worth between 2,500 and 4,000 US dollars. Saffron grown on the same surface brings in about 6,000 dollars.

The government is expanding saffron cultivation from two districts to seven in Kandahar province this year.

A farmer harvests opium in Chapliar, Afghanistan, Photo: AP Photo / B.K. Bangash

Many farmers prefer to plant opium

Saffron doesn't suit everyone

However, although the climate in certain parts of Afghanistan is particularly suited to saffron, this is not the case everywhere.

Sardar Khan went back to poppy after just one year of experimenting with saffron in the eastern province of Laghman. His crop was of such poor quality that he was only able to sell it at a very low price.

"The government promised to support us financially if we transferred to saffron," he said angrily. "But then they didn't actually provide us with any help. They lied to us!"

Moreover, he said, looking out onto his fields of poppy, opium buyers are more reliable. "They tell us in advance that they want to buy everything. If we have financial problems they give us what we need and tell us to pay them back once we get the yields."

"Saffron is not the only alternative for opium cultivation," said Zabiullah Dayem. "We are looking at each province as a separate case. For instance, gardening can be a very good alternative in some Afghan provinces."

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