Export woes may send Afghan farmers back to drugs
By Jonathon Burch
KABUL, Nov 11 (Reuters) – A bumper fruit harvest in Afghanistan this year has led to a surplus for domestic markets and with difficulties in exporting the goods, growers could return to harvesting opium, experts and farmers say.
Afghanistan used to produce some of the region’s best fruits and nuts but insecurity led farmers to switch to opium, a crop that funds the Taliban insurgency, adding to insecurity and further boosting drug production.
While cultivation of opium, the raw ingredient for heroin, decreased this year, Afghanistan still produces some 90 percent of the world’s supply of the drug.
Encouraged by international aid groups, some farmers have switched from growing opium to fruit and other products in recent years, but with little financial benefit and export problems, many could revert to more lucrative illicit crops.
“Farmers will always go for products with the highest benefit, especially with all the post-harvest problems,” Mohammad Aqa, assistant representative for the U.N.’s food and agriculture organisation in Afghanistan (FAO), told Reuters.
But problems with processing, packaging and storing produce, along with poor access to international markets, means many farmers are not even able to cover their costs, said Aqa.
A fruit surplus is unlikely to meet the needs of millions of Afghans facing severe food shortages this winter as droughts in many areas of the country have hurt the staple wheat harvest.
Many farmers around the capital are feeling the strain and calling on the government to do more.
“If the government doesn’t find us an export market and we don’t benefit from our agricultural products and suffer financial harm like past years … then we will have to return to poppy farming,” said Safatullah Khan, a farmer on the outskirts of Kabul.
Due to the problems with exporting goods and the unregulated import of products already grown in Afghanistan, such as apples and grapes from China and Pakistan, farmers are forced to sell at very low prices, said Aqa.
A 7 kg (15 lb) bag of apples costs just $3 in any of the capital’s fruit markets.
“I agree with the farmers, they need more support. The government needs to at least limit these kind of imports … in order to make them (farmers) competitive in the international market,” said Aqa. “It’s not a good time to introduce a free market in Afghanistan at the moment.”
The government’s export agency (EPAA) says it is aware of the problem and is working on finding a solution.
“We know that Afghan fruit production reached high levels this year, especially apples. These high levels of production have created problems and worries in society,” said Rohullah Ahmadzai, spokesman for EPAA.
“I know the sharp increase in production within the market is worrying the farmers, but we will solve this issue soon,” he said. He added that despite problems in exporting, $21 million worth of fruit was exported from Kandahar province alone. (Editing by Valerie Lee)