Afghan Taliban threatens saffron farmers

Switch from poppies penalized, though saffron is more profitable

By Farzad Lameh

2011-01-11

KABUL – Afghan farmers would prefer to grow crops other than poppy, but such a decision carries the risk of intimidation – or worse – from militants, Afghan officials say.

One profitable alternative is saffron.

“Saffron cultivation doubled in 2010 compared with 2009 in Afghanistan,” Majidullah Qarar, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, told Central Asia Online. “A 1ha farm can produce 12kg of saffron, which can make almost $30,000 per year, which is much better than poppy cultivation,” he said.

Saffron is the world’s costliest spice by weight.

At least 80% of Afghanistan’s workforce is involved in agriculture, and saffron grows in 15 of the 34 provinces.

“This is good news for Afghan farmers,” Qarar said.

But militants, who depend on drug profits, are trying to thwart these efforts.

“...About 98% of poppies are being cultivated in south and south-western provinces, where the Taliban militants are in a tough battle with Afghan government and coalition troops,” Engineer Ibrahim Azhar, deputy for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, told Central Asia Online.

The UN, in its World Drug Report 2010, estimated that the Taliban earned at least US $125m annually from opium production.

Taliban warns farmers against switching from poppies

Azhar said the Taliban has sent warning letters to farmers. These prove that insurgents “have taken farmers hostage,” he said.

Farmers who defy Taliban demands to continue growing poppies “will be killed,” he said.

Qais Wardak, spokesman for the governor of Uruzgan Province, confirmed that residents there have been warned not to grow other crops.

“They (the Taliban) need to purchase arms and explosives in order to keep fighting, so they’re stepping up poppy cultivation,” he added.

“The Taliban have no other choice but to force local people – and this is all to support themselves financially,” Azhar said.

“The militants are trying to eliminate people’s sources of income in order to make them join the Taliban,” Qarar said.

Saffron could generate $100m of income a year for Herat alone if the region could devote 5,000 to 7,000ha of farmland to the flower, according to data from Afghanistan’s Agriculture Ministry.

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