HEART: Abdul Khaliq Stanikzai says the tiny mound of red and yellow threads in the palm of his hand could help cure Afghanistan of its opium addiction.
With agricultural development now seen as pivotal to weaning Afghanistan off drugs and war, multi-million-dollar programs aimed at offering farmers alternatives to poppy production are cropping up nationwide.
In western Herat province bordering Iran, purple crocus plants have slowly replaced pink poppies in some areas, but the benefits of swapping to saffron from opium are long term and, Stanikzai said, farmers need to be convinced.
"Saffron requires confidence and patience because the output grows year by year, and it is not until year four that the plant is at the top of its production and income for the farmers," said Stanikzai, Herat director of Sanayee Development Organization, an Afghan aid group.
The same is true of other crops — from almonds to pomegranates, grapes, apples and wheat — being offered as alternatives to opium for the 85 percent of Afghans who live on the land.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries and its biggest producer of opium, the base for heroin — accounting for more than 90 percent of supply.
Supported by drug gangs — who sub-contract protection to Taliban gunmen — Afghan poppy growers have a guaranteed income, with fertilizer, water and cash advances from middlemen who also collect the opium paste.
Afghanistan’s opium industry is worth almost three billion dollars a year, supplying heroin to Europe and helping fund the Taliban-led insurgency, which is in its 10th year and spreading across the country.
Afghanistan produced around 3,600 tonnes of opium this year, almost 50 percent of the 2009 output, the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.
But the value of the opium rose by 38 percent to 604 million dollars at the farm gate, which could encourage farmers to boost cultivation.
The report put the value of opium output at five percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) this year, more than six times the value of the wheat crop.
Taliban makes growing poppy easy
The ease of growing poppies contrasts sharply with alternatives on offer, with farmers who do wish to switch often facing Taliban intimidation.
Washington is supporting agricultural development as an adjunct to the military effort to end the war, with USAID managing programs worth one billion dollars to create jobs and boost incomes.
These efforts led to 22 poppy-free provinces and less opium cultivation, it says. The British government credits its wheat seed distribution program for a seven percent drop in opium output in Helmand province.
But the United Nations said the area under opium production remained largely consistent, indicating a failure to convince farmers to switch to alternatives.
The fall in opium cultivation in Helmand — the world’s major source — was "statistically not significant," the UNODC said, while neighboring Kandahar, centre of the insurgency, showed a 30 percent rise in the area under poppy.
The fall in output was pressuring prices, with the average farm-gate price of dry opium up 164 percent over last year, at 169 dollars a kilogram, it said.
Still, the returns on high-end cash crops look good and agriculture ministry spokesman Abdul Majeed Qarar said "every day more and more farmers express interest in growing saffron".
The stigma of the crocus plant that produces the high-priced spice has been used for thousands of years to add fragrance, flavor and color to food. It is also used in herbal medicines, dyes and perfumes.
Between 50,000 and 75,000 flowers are needed to produce one pound (half a kilogram) of dried saffron, which can retail for more than 5,000 dollars.
Stanikzai said the farm-gate price for opium in Herat earlier this year was 95 dollars a kilo, compared to 2,000 dollars for saffron. He estimated annual production at 1.14 tonnes.
Afghanistan is a minnow in the market, competing with Iran, Italy, Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan and Morocco; though Qarar said Afghan saffron had already found markets in the Gulf and India.
With help from the United States, France and the Netherlands, farmers from across the country were coming to Herat to learn the advantages of saffron.
Saffron earnings far outstrip opium
"The saffron growing season is from mid-September to mid-November, outside the normal cropping season, it is easy to grow and requires little water.
"And of course it brings in more income than poppies: farmers can earn 3,000 to 5,000 dollars per hectare from opium, but saffron farmers after three years can make up to 30,000 dollars per hectare," he said.
Qarar said saffron was growing on 300 hectares in Herat and another 300 hectares in Uruzgan, Kapisa, Parwan and Laghman provinces, adding: "We are now testing soils in 20 provinces to see if saffron will grow there."
With the insurgency intensifying and the July 2011 deadline for the start of a drawdown of US combat troops nearing, Qarar said there was pressure to build up Afghanistan’s capacity to process alternative cash crops.
US agriculture officials have said that without processing, storage, transport and distribution facilities — let alone markets — efforts to boost cash crop output could come to nought.
Qarar agreed. "Huge challenges still remain.
"To improve the quantity and quality of saffron we need saffron experts, we need laboratories to process saffron, research teams to work on how to improve the quality and quantity of saffron… everything."
At the Herat Saffron Shop — where saffron in attractive jars sells for five dollars a gram — Yaser Jahn said his suppliers, former opium farmers, were "definitely doing well".
"The government encourages them and helps them, they have grants, and it’s a legal way to make a good living," he said.