HERAT - Farmers taking part in an internationally-backed saffron-growing
project in Herat province in western Afghanistan say they are being targeted by
Taliban militants who want them to cultivate opium poppies instead.
Insurgents in areas north of Herat city have destroyed fields planted with
saffron, and last month attacked two trucks carrying bulbs for planting. Both
drivers were killed and their vehicles torched.
Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi of Herat's agriculture department described what happened,
"The Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team had promised to provide farmers in
Kushk-e Kohna and Rabat-e Sangi districts with seven tons of saffron bulbs.
When the bulbs were
being transported out to these districts, the armed opposition set fire to the
trucks and killed the drivers."
Ahmadi said everyone had been shocked by the incident.
"The farmers had complained in the past that the armed opposition was
threatening them over poppy cultivation, but no one ever expected an incident
like this to happen," he said. "The information we've received indicates that
farmers don't dare cultivate saffron in the province's more remote and unstable
districts because of Taliban influence."
Mohammad Musa, a farmer in the village of Darz in Kushk district - believed to
be second only to Shindand district for its Taliban presence - described his
failed attempt to make money out of saffron.
He and other farmers were given some training and issued with saffron bulbs by
agriculture officials in Herat city, as part of efforts to wean them off
But six months later, the Taliban began threatening them, and finally destroyed
their saffron crops.
"They destroyed three hectares of land where I'd planted saffron," he said. "My
life is ruined - one year's effort has gone to waste. I don't know how to pay
to sustain my family."
Mohammad Musa explained why the insurgents disliked saffron, "The Taliban are
the main buyers of opium, so they try to force farmers to cultivate poppy,
because they can't sell saffron."
For farmers who have committed themselves to saffron, the Taliban attacks have
Another farmer in Kushk, Shah Mohammad, said he had prepared most of his land
for planting saffron and feared he would be left destitute after the two
truckloads of bulbs were destroyed.
"Not only have I been unable to plant wheat this year, but the saffron bulbs
haven't reached us. I do not know how I'm going to get through the coming
winter," he said.
Security officials in Herat acknowledge that the Taliban presence is
significant in remoter parts of the province, but insist they are working to
extend the reach of government and prevent armed groups from disrupting
Nur Khan Nikzad, Herat police headquarters spokesman, said the insurgents were
actively encouraging farmers in several districts to grow the opium poppy, but
insisted, "The only districts where opium is probably still being cultivated
are the Shindand and Kushk. Our intelligence indicates that the level of opium
production [province-wide] has fallen by 90%."
Nikzad said police would take action to protect people if they received
Farmers like Mohammad Musa have little faith in such promises. "Officials do
nothing but bluff. The opposition moves around freely in our area," he said.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting contacted Mullah Sayed Zaher, the
head of a parallel administration the Taliban have created in Kushk. He
admitted responsibility for the attack on the truck.
"We will burn everything the infidels bring into the district. And it's
obligatory to kill those who work with the foreigners," he said. "As long as my
men and I live, I will not allow any resident to receive donations from
foreigners, whether it be saffron or anything else."
Abdullah Halim, an expert on agricultural affairs in Herat, believes the
Taliban want to display their power by showing they can make people grow poppy,
and also to profit from the lucrative drugs trade.
"It's the job of government to extend its reach into areas where it currently
has little access; it should try to maintain control of this region," he added.
The saffron crocus plant, whose stamens are harvested mostly for culinary use
but also for medicinal purposes, needs little irrigation, is resistant to
disease and can be harvested over several successive years.
The Herat region has become an important producer, generating 1.5 tons a year.
That might not seem much, but the stamens fetch US$2,000 a kilogram on the
Afghan market, and twice that when exported.
Dealers in saffron say the authorities need to do more to protect the crop.
"There have been many obstacles standing in the way of growing and trading in
saffron," Mohammad Jalil, a leading trader, said "Another major problem has now
been added on - hostility to the plan's cultivation on the part of some in the
All the investment made to date was now at risk, he said, noting that the
attack in Kushk meant a contract with a Danish aid group to supply saffron
bulbs to neighboring Faryab province had to be canceled.
Afghanistan's Counter-Narcotics Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel says poppy
cultivation in Herat fell by 50% last year, thanks to the efforts of his staff
and other government agencies, and also because of a disease that blighted
However, he warned that higher prices and increasing demand for opium might now
be encouraging farmers to turn back to poppy growing, which would reverse the
Meanwhile, farmers like Mohammad Musa feel they are caught between two very
different agricultural policies. "We don't know what to grow - if we cultivate
poppy, the government destroys our lands, and if we grow saffron, the
opposition destroys it. We're the ones who lose," he said. "If the government
can't protect farmers, it can't tell us what to grow and what not to grow."
Sadeq Behnam is an IWPR-trained journalist in Herat.