On a recent visit to a Combat Outpost in Khost Province, Afghanistan, I had a very interesting discussion with a Civil Affairs officer. We talked of many things, but what is relevant to the Cooking with Little Buddy blog is farming. I fly in helicopters all over my area of operations. Helicopters fly low, so the views are magnificent. Afghanistan is a harshly beautiful country, very mountainous, with high desert plains. But, there are many strips of fertile, green farmland throughout. One can see thousands of irrigation trenches, they are around every field.
I asked him what he thought about us trying to get Afghan farmers to stop growing poppies, saying why should they be expected to stop when there aren’t alternative crops that pay as much. He told me that they don’t make as much more as many think, although they do make more. The issue is perishability and ability to get crops to market in time. I can identify with that from my days trying to make a living growing organic vegetables.
Two other things impact the growing of poppies. One is that Afghanistan has no banking system to speak of, especially
in remote villages far from the big cities. Once poppies are processed into paste, which the farmer do themselves, it lasts forever. That takes care of the perishability problem. They bury it, effectively banking it. It is always a source of ready cash when needed. If a farmer needs money, he digs up a brick and sells it to the drug people.
There is one crop that pays as well as poppies and grows well in Afghanistan. It also has an extremely long shelf life and sounds like the perfect alternative. That is saffron. I had never thought of that, but it makes sense. However, lots of saffron is grown in India, but Indian mafias control the trade, so it is very difficult for Afghan farmers to get saffron to market. The mafias want to ensure supply remains limited and prices high.
I did a little research on poppies and saffron and found a few interesting facts, some not perhaps so obvious or well known. I must make the disclosure that I don’t care what crops any farmer grows and I think drugs should be legal. It would certainly take the criminal element out of poppy growing and probably lower prices for farmers all the way to the user on the street. That could be the best way to get them to switch crops, but that makes too much sense. Of course, as we shall see shortly, there are criminal, or at least unsavory, elements controlling some of the saffron trade. Saffron is an awesome crop to produce for farmers anywhere living in the right climate and it is an excellent semi-arid condition crop.
First, it is no surprise that Afghanistan is the leading producer of opium in the world and production has been steadily increasing since the United States ousted the Taliban from controlling the government in late 2001. This is really quite ironic given one of our missions here is to stop the poppy growing. During the Soviet occupation, we tacitly supported opium production as it was used to fund the Mujahideen (freedom fighters). After the Soviets left and through much of Taliban rule poppy production continued to increase until, in 2000, the Taliban declared growing poppies un-Islamic. Some consider this a political rather than religious ban in order to cut supply and raise prices, but it worked. Perhaps, but the Taliban had never before had any qualms about using drug money to finance their wars. Nor do they do now.
Accurate data on poppy cultivation is hard to find and not up to date. For example, the most recent map I found (a UN Office on Drugs and Crime map) showed no poppy cultivation in 2010 in Khost Province. I know for a fact that there currently is cultivation going on now (2011). Below is what I consider the most accurate map I could find (also a UN Office on Drugs and Crime map). My direct experience in Afghanistan is in the east, I have visited the following provinces: Ghazni, Kabul, Khost, Paktika and Paktya. I was based out of Khost, now out of Ghazni and my job takes me all over the provinces.
Next post, I’ll discuss saffrom, an awesome crop in the right conditions.