April 4, 2004
By Hamida Ghafour in Herat
The Romans used it to scent their baths and Francis Bacon wrote that "it makes the English sprightly". Now, saffron - the most expensive spice in the world - could become an antidote to Afghanistan's opium production, and Britain's drug problem.
About 400 farmers in the western province of Herat have begun to grow the spice - which retails for about £4 a gram in the UK - as a substitute crop for poppies, the opium sap of which produces heroin. When the saffron is harvested in the autumn, the farmers can expect to reap about $200 (£108) a kilogram (2.2lb). While less than the $300 they would make from a kilogram of illegally grown poppies, it is 100 times more than they would make from wheat, corn or oranges.
Abdul Samed, a former poppy farmer, is looking forward to harvesting his saffron, grown on an acre of land. "Saffron is slowly improving our lives and it is not difficult work," he said.
"Our country is getting better every day. I know farmers here who are growing poppy, but I am trying to encourage them to grow saffron. If I make a profit I will share it with other neighbours so that they see how good it can be."
The aim of the local project, which was inspired by the country's agriculture ministry, is to dent an opium industry that produces more than 90 per cent of the heroin sold on Britain's streets.
Britain leads the international campaign to rid Afghanistan of its poppy crop and last week the US state department published an unusually critical report into their lenient policing. Robert Charles, the state department's senior narcotics official, told a congressional committee hearing that the British efforts had been "painfully slow".
This year, the poppy farmers are looking forward to a record crop after spring came early and brought forward the planting season. The Taliban clamped down on the trade but since the regime was toppled in 2001, farmers have grown poppies with renewed vigour.
The saffron project is one of the schemes being considered by a three-strong team of British advisers sent to Afghanistan to help find solutions to the drug problem. Britain has invested £70 million over three years in counter-narcotics projects, trying to block both the flow of heroin and the profits skimmed off to fund terrorist activities.
Last week Mike O'Brien, the Foreign Office minister, said the future success of Afghanistan depended on stamping out the opium trade. "Afghanistan will return to peace and prosperity only if the drugs trade is eliminated," he said at the Berlin Conference on Afghanistan. "Defeating this cancer will be a long slog but we, the Afghan government and the international community are determined to see this through."
So far, the problem has worsened. In 2003, an opium crop was harvested from 61,000 hectares of land, double the acreage of the previous year.
The agriculture department in Herat decided to take matters into its own hands. Last year, representatives travelled to Iran to buy saffron bulbs and handed them out to poppy farmers.
Saffron's peppery, honeyed fragrance has flavoured foods for more than 4,000 years. The spice is mainly grown in Greece, Spain, Turkey, Iran and Morocco. It is extracted from the stigma of the saffron crocus, reddish-gold filaments an inch long that are plucked by hand from the centre of dried crocus blossoms. Another farmer, Mullah Akbar, has embraced the idea of growing saffron with enthusiasm - partly, he admitted, because the powerful warlord of Herat, Ismael Khan, had warned farmers not to grow poppies any more or risk arrest.
An American official in Afghanistan said that President Hamid Karzai's government should use teams of officers to monitor and eradicate crops, making clear to farmers that they would be prosecuted if they carried on growing poppies.
He said that heroin production was funding terrorist organisations such as Hizb-e-Islami, which was led by the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. "It is a narco-military terrorist organisation," he said. "It owns a network that ships opium gum to Pakistan and Central Asia. In fact, it is a drug cartel which has insurgency goals against the Karzai government."
Hizb-e-Islami sends an estimated £65 million in cash a year to militant fighters in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechyna, and to Islamic fundamentalist groups in Uzbekistan. The group is believed to have accounted for up to 15 per cent of last year's opium crop.
Mr Akbar said that he was looking forward to using the money earned from this year's saffron crop to install electricity in his house. "We have lived for so long and have never seen electricity. If everyone here grew saffron our lives would be better."
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