Afghan farmers ditch opium for saffron
By Farooq Faizi
HERAT, Afghanistan - Abdul Samad has given up growing poppies. The farmer from
Gulmir, from a village in Pashtun Zarghon district of Herat province, has found
monetary and spiritual benefits in switching to saffron.
"I always felt sinful when I was growing poppies," he said. "The money brought
me no joy, and did not allow me to change my life."
In 2007, Afghanistan supplied more than 90% of the world's opium poppy, the raw
material for heroin.
Abdul Samad grew the illegal crop for five years until a new
government program helped him make the switch to saffron, the world's most
"I make more money than I used to," he said. "With poppy, I got between US$400
and $600 for each jerib of land. Now I make more than US$5,000." A jerib is
approximately half an acre.
Saffron is prized for its taste and color, and is used in food and dyes. People
in Herat use it to brew tea when they can afford it. Even locally, a small
five-gram knot of the substance costs close to US$25, a bit pricey for
villagers making no more than $200 per month.
But saffron is catching on. Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi, head of the marketing
department for Herat's Department of Agriculture, estimates that the province
now has 212 hectares planted in saffron, with annual production approaching
50-70 tonnes. This may be miniscule compared to the 7,700 tonnes of opium that
Afghanistan produced from 157,000 hectares in 2008, but it is a start.
The nation's naturally conservative poppy farmers say they need more secure
international markets for saffron before they make the switch in bigger
The world price of saffron has skyrocketed over the past few years, and is now
running at about US$3,000 per kilogram. Rumors that it may prove therapeutic in
cancer treatment has caused demand to spike even further.
This is good news for Afghan farmers, who are looking for an alternative to
poppy. The banned opium plant is expensive to harvest, and there is the risk of
police involvement and possible legal destruction. Worst of all, it is bringing
in much less money than it used to. The price of black tar opium has fallen
precipitously over the past three years, mainly due to overproduction.
Experts say that saffron is being grown in 16 provinces of Afghanistan,
including the northern provinces of Balkh and Kapisa, but the bulk of the
product comes from Herat, in the west of the country on the border with Iran.
Saffron has a history in Herat stretching back more than 80 years. The first
plants were cultivated in the Hauz-e-Karbos area of the province, and in
1973-74 the government conducted experiments in saffron cultivation.
But war intervened, and the project was dropped. Not until 1991-92, with the
influx of returnees from Iran, was saffron reintroduced. Iran, jealously
guarding its near-monopoly on saffron in the region, did not allow saffron
bulbs to be exported. The enterprising Afghans smuggled them in.
"The returnees from Iran brought bulbs with them, illegally, and began to grow
saffron in Ghoreyan district [in Herat]," said Ahmadi.
When the Taliban took over in 1996, they encouraged farmers to grow poppy, said
Abdul Qader, a farmer from Pashtun Zarghon.
"The Taliban were buying our harvest for a very high price," he explained.
"Many saffron farms were destroyed, and converted to poppy."
Poppy cultivation rose quickly, said Qader, as drugs were the main funding
source for the Taliban. But in 2000-2001, the Taliban banned poppy. Some see
savvy marketing behind the prohibition.
"When the price of opium dropped on world markets in 2000-2001, [Taliban
leader] Mullah Omar issued a decree banning poppy," said Ahmadi. "They wanted
to boost the price of poppy in world markets."
After the Taliban were routed in the 2001 United States-led offensive, farmers
returned to the now lucrative poppy trade, joining an Afghanistan-wide movement
that made the country the number one opium producer in the world.
Drug money funds the insurgency and fuels government corruption, hindering
development and threatening to turn Afghanistan into a pariah state. The search
for an alternative to poppy has been going on for several years, and some think
that saffron might be the answer.
The government of Herat, with assistance from the local, Italian-led Provincial
Reconstruction Team, began to distribute saffron bulbs free of charge to those
willing to make the switch. Saffron grows well in Herat's hot, dry climate, say
farmers. It is also easier and cheaper to grow and harvest than poppy.
"Saffron does not need a lot of water," said Abdul Qader. "It does not need a
lot of fertilizer, and you need fewer people to harvest it." Also, he added,
the bulbs, once planted, are productive for six years.
Like Abdul Samad, Qader said that his life had improved dramatically since he
began to grow saffron.
"This plant has brought blessings to our land," he said. "During the first
three years I was making one kilogram of saffron per jerib of land. But by the
fifth year I was getting three kilograms."
The value of his land has also increased, he explained. Before farmers began
growing saffron in the area a jerib of land sold for 70,000 afghani ($1,400).
The price has now more than doubled to 150,000 afghani.
According to Mohammad Hashem Aslami, a saffron expert and head of the
agriculture section of the Danish organization DACAAR in Herat, Afghan saffron,
particularly the Herati variety, is the best in the world.
"There are three reasons for our high quality," he explained. "First, we have
the right climate; second, we harvest by hand; and third, we have a very great
capacity for production."
Ghafar Hamidzai, director of Afghanistan's largest saffron company, Afghan
Saffron, agrees. "If the farmers use the right methods of cultivation and
harvesting, Afghanistan's saffron will be the best," he said. "We are
attracting a lot of attention from Western markets."
Saffron could be a boon to Afghanistan's agricultural export industry if it is
properly managed, according to the agriculture department's Ahmadi.
"Over the next six years, if farmers receive help from the government and
non-governmental organizations, the production of saffron will increase to
50-70 tons per year," he told IWPR. "This is a very positive step for the
development and prosperity of this country and the region."
But help from the Afghan government has been slow in coming, complain the
"The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged us to plant saffron, and promised us
lots of assistance," said Qader. "But they have not done anything for us yet."
Not true, says Ahmadi. His office has distributed saffron bulbs to the farmers
free of charge, he insisted. They sponsored some of them to go to Kabul for
training, and they are working on getting Afghan saffron into international
Hajji Toryalia Rausi, an official of the Herat chamber of commerce, told IWPR
that farmers had not asked his organization for help.
"The farmers have not told us about problems with marketing of saffron," he
said. "If they provide information on their rate of production, we can approve
a specific and stable rate for their product."
But still, says DACAAR's Aslami, Afghanistan's farmers require more substantive
"It would be difficult for Afghanistan to compete with Iran on saffron
production," he told IWPR. "We still lack a comprehensive plan."