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],” he said.
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 smugglers.
However these measures have not stopped Afghanistan achieving record-levels of opium production, officials say.
Photo: Khalid Nahez/IRIN
One hectare of land in Herat Province can yield about 12kg of saffron and each kilo of it can be sold for US$1,500 in local market
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.
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 exporter.
Photo: Khalid Nahez/IRIN
Filaments of saffron flower
“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.”