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Export woes may send Afghan farmers back to drugs

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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.

“GOVERNMENT RESPONSIBLE”

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)

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November 12, 2008 at 5:34 am

Posted in Agriculture, Drugs, Economy

Mint oil, melons: Afghan farm fairs spur business

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By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer
Oct 29, 2008
 
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Nadir Bahktar’s stall at a northern Afghanistan agriculture fair had the faint smell of Christmas.
 
Before him sat an array of tiny $2 bottles filled with pure mint oil, a pungent liquid that smelled like concentrated candy canes and was strong enough to bring tears to the eyes. The concoction was advertised as a cure for aching joints.
 
“No, you don’t drink it,” he scolded a customer with a wag of the finger before making a rubbing motion over his knees.
 
Bahktar and his mint oil joined honey producers, melon growers and carpet weavers on Wednesday at the seventh and final U.S.-funded agricultural fair of the year, outdoor forums to help farmers and exporters meet up and sign business deals.
 
Bahktar has attended several of the fairs in order to advertise his mint oil and mint-flavored drinking water. “Business is good but we’re trying to improve it even more,” he said at his fair booth Wednesday.
 
An agriculture fair in Kabul last year attracted 160,000 people. But this year the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm that sponsors the fairs, pulled back the size of the event. Still, 50,000 people showed up to look at the 200 booths. Some 60 overseas buyers attended.
 
The U.S. and Afghan governments are eager to encourage farmers to grow legal crops as opposed to opium. Afghanistan grows 90 percent of the world’s supply of the plant, which is the main ingredient in heroin.
 
That drug trade fuels an increasingly violent militancy in the country: U.N. officials say the Taliban derives $100 million a year from it.
 
Loren Stoddard, director of the alternative development and agriculture office for USAID, said the fairs also help farmers in the war-torn country who have missed out on years of farming advancements.
 
Farmers and buyers have signed more than $10 million worth of contracts during 14 fairs the last two years, he said. The U.S. has spent about $1 million hosting the events.
 
“In the United States we have the yellow pages. If you want to buy some irrigation equipment, you open up the Yellow Pages,” Stoddard said. “That doesn’t exist here. Ag fairs are a way for everyone to see who sells irrigation equipment.”
 
Buyers from regional markets, like India, attend the fairs in hopes of importing Afghanistan’s produce. The country grows gleaming red pomegranates and juicy grapes, but its road system makes getting produce to market quickly difficult, and it has few storage facilities.
 
USAID is helping teach farmers new techniques. James Kunder, the acting deputy assistant administrator for USAID who was visiting Afghanistan this week, said Wednesday that a farmer he spoke with at the fair told him his old melon exports to India suffered a 30 percent spoilage rate during transportation.
 
After USAID helped provide him with packaging for his produce, the farmer’s spoilage rate dropped to 5 percent.
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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November 1, 2008 at 3:45 am

Posted in Agriculture, Economy

Wheat loan to ease food shortage

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KABUL, 4 September 2008 (IRIN) – The UN World Food Programme (WFP) and government of Pakistan are finalising an agreement involving the loan of 50,000 tonnes of wheat for pre-winter food aid operations in Afghanistan.

Once the agreement is signed, WFP will begin importing the wheat over two months, Susana Rico, WFP’s country representative, said. It will be pre-positioned in vulnerable areas where access is difficult in winter.

The loan will help WFP to remedy immediate funding delays in emergency food aid for about five million Afghans hit by high food prices and drought.

Upon receiving funds from donors WFP will pay the loan back.

Funding delays

UN agencies and the Afghan government jointly appealed on 9 July for US$404 million to deal with the food crisis resulting from high prices and drought.

The joint appeal included WFP’s request for $185 million, which it will use to procure 230,000 tonnes of food to be distributed until August 2009.

The UN has reiterated calls for “vital funding” to avert a possible crisis this winter amid donors’ “slow and insufficient response” to the joint appeal.

WFP said it had received up to 25 percent by 3 September.

Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has pledged 50,000 tonnes of wheat, WFP said.

The American donation “is expected to arrive at port [Pakistan] six to eight weeks from now and a further two to three weeks to arrive at regional hubs in Afghanistan”, Rico said.

WFP said the 100,000 tonnes of wheat would be sufficient for its “winter pre-positioning programme”.

Government wheat procurement

The hike in food prices has prompted Pakistan to impose a ban on food exports to neighbouring Afghanistan, which relies particularly on Pakistani wheat flour.

Earlier this year Pakistan agreed to sell 50,000 tonnes of wheat to the Afghan government to ease its domestic food shortages.

“Over 12,000 tonnes of the wheat procured from Pakistan have been imported to the country and the process is ongoing,” according to a government statement on 2 September.

The imported wheat will be offered at a subsidised price, the government said.

The statement also said separate agreements signed with the Russian Federation and Ukraine would allow the country to import about 80,000 tonnes of wheat.

According to the country’s National Risk and Vulnerability Assessments, 42 percent of the Afghan population (approximately 12 million people) live below the poverty line, on 45 US cents per day or less.

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September 6, 2008 at 9:10 pm

Soya beans to stave off malnutrition?

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KABUL, 28 August 2008 (IRIN) – Fatema takes her four-year-old daughter, Nafeesa, to a free soya-milk distribution centre in Herat city, western Afghanistan, three times a week in a bid to protect her against malnutrition.

Three months ago medical experts told Fatema about protein deficiency in Nafeesa’s body and warned that unless the child was well fed she would be malnourished.

“I told doctors about our poverty and that we could not provide good food and fruits for my daughter,” said Fatema whose husband, Najibullah, earns a modest income from his bicycle repair shop.

“Doctors told me about this soya-milk distribution centre for pregnant women and children,” she said.

The free soya-milk distribution centre is jointly run by the department of women’s affairs and a non-governmental organisation, and is funded by a Canadian donor.

“My daughter’s health has improved since I brought her to this centre and she has stopped complaining about bone pain,” Fatema told IRIN.

High infant mortality

Afghanistan has an infant mortality ratio of 165 deaths per 1,000 live births. One in four children dies before reaching the age of five, mostly due to acute malnutrition and preventable diseases, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, reported.

“Among under-five children, 7 percent suffer from acute malnutrition and 54 percent are chronically malnourished. The nutrition figures could be higher in the areas affected by conflict and drought, where access is denied and humanitarian services are difficult to deliver,” says UNICEF’s Humanitarian Action Report 2008 [INSERT LINK http://www.unicef.org/har08/index.html

Soya bean products (milk, flour and beans) are also highly recommended by medical experts for pregnant and lactating women who do not have access to adequate food and nutrition.

Afghanistan is only second to Sierra Leone in terms of high maternal mortality rates, with at least 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to UNICEF.

Most pregnant and lactating women die due to lack of access to adequate food and nutrition, health experts say.

Protein-rich

The soya-bean is a species of legume and considered by nutritionists to be a rich source of amino acids and protein essential for the human body.

Afghanistan’s climate and soil are suitable for the cultivation of soya beans, particularly in the south, east and southwest which have hot summers.

A USA-based nutrition expert, Steven Kwoon, introduced soya beans to Afghan farmers for the first time in 2003 through his small organisation – Nutrition & Education International (NEI) – to help tackle protein deficiency and malnutrition among children and women.

The NEI distributed two tonnes of genetically modified soya seed in 2005 which produced 10 tonnes of soya beans, and over the years the number of farmers has risen to over 4,000 and production has soared to 2,000 tonnes in 2007, the NEI said.

“If Afghanistan produces 300,000 tonnes of soya beans annually it will be able to meet the protein requirements of 30 million people and will be able to eradicate malnutrition,” Kwoon told IRIN on 28 August.

Setback

One third of the 60 tonnes of soya seed which the NEI had imported from the USA for distribution to Afghan farmers could not be used as seed because the consignments had been held for too long in the hot weather at customs inside Afghanistan, Kwoon said.

“We have only distributed 20 tonnes of seed this year and as a result production levels will be lower than 2007,” said Kwoon adding that the country would still produce about 1,000 tonnes of soya beans.

The NEI said it was working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock to end the country’s reliance on soya seed imports by establishing a domestic seed production capacity.

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September 3, 2008 at 2:52 am

Afghan airport to help switch from drugs to fruit

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By Jonathon Burch

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, Aug 4 (Reuters) – The Afghan and U.S. governments have broken ground on an agricultural centre and airport in the volatile southern province of Helmand, aimed at helping farmers grow food crops instead of opium poppies.

Helmand is one of the most fertile provinces in Afghanistan, but much of its agriculture is devoted to poppy farming and the province produced about half the world’s opium last year.

Fighting between Taliban insurgents and mainly British and U.S. troops in Helmand makes it hard to transport perishable produce to market, while traffickers collect opium directly from the farms or farmers can safely store the drug for some 20 years.

The new Lashkar Gah airport will be the first purely civilian-controlled airport in troubled southern Afghanistan and will also boast a centre for processing and storing food products before they are flown to domestic and international markets.

“This is a deeply important project for Helmand,” said Gulab Mangal, governor of Helmand, at a ceremony on Sunday afternoon attended by the deputy U.S. Ambassador and Afghan ministers.

“Reliable air transportation for both cargo and civilians is a critical component of developing Helmand province’s economy,” he said.

FRUIT AND NUTS, NOT DRUGS

The ground-breaking ceremony was held at the provincial capital’s existing airfield, a dirt air strip with a small, dilapidated terminal building built in the 1960s.

The entire project will cost $45 million and will be mostly funded by the U.S. development agency, USAID. The Afghan government is expected to contribute around $5 million.

Some $18 million will be allocated to paving the 2,200-metre (yard) runway, expanding and rehabilitating the terminal and constructing the agricultural centre.

The remainder will be spent on agricultural development in the province, ensuring markets for the farmers and providing technical assistance.

Helmand used to produce some of the region’s best dried fruits, pomegranates and nuts. But insecurity has led farmers to switch to opium, a crop that also funds the Taliban insurgency, adding to insecurity and further boosting drug production.

The airport aims to open up markets for farmers to transport “high value” products such as pomegranates and raisins to international markets, a USAID official told Reuters.

The airport and agricultural development in the province is part of a larger counter-narcotics strategy to get farmers to switch from growing opium.

The Afghan government will be in charge of managing the new airport as well as providing security. A new police station and Helmand’s first fire station will be built adjacent to the airport by the British Provincial Reconstruction Team, which will be able to serve not only the airport but the city itself.

Domestic passenger flights are expected to begin once the runway is completed this winter, providing a secure alternative to travelling by road.

Road travellers are often attacked by Taliban and bandits, especially in the southern provinces. (Editing by Jerry Norton)

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August 24, 2008 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Agriculture, Drugs

Afghanistan: $50 mln to coax farmers away from opium growing in south

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AKI – Adnkronos International

Lashkar Gah, 4 August (AKI) – The US overseas aid agency and the Afghan agriculture minister on Monday unveiled a 50 million dollar investment project to halt opium production in southern Helmand province.

The project is at aimed encouraging farmers in the province switch from opium to other crops. Part of the cash will be spent on a modern agricultural research centre and a new airport at Lashkar Gah – the first purely civilian-controlled airport in Helmand.

Over half of the world’s opium was grown in Helmand in 2007. The joint US-Afghan project will give opium growers incentives to cultivate new crops such as pomegranates, pistachio nuts and almonds instead of poppies.

A purpose-built processing centre at the new Lashkar Gah airport will enable the new crops to be properly stored and packaged.

Fighting between Taliban insurgents and NATO forces in Helmand makes it hard to transport perishable produce to markets.

Much of Helmand’s opium production was under Taliban control until they were forced to withdraw partially from the province earlier this year.

Ninety percent of the anti-opium project’s funding will come from the US government’s overseas aid agency (USAID) and 10 percent from the Afghan government.

Some 18 million dollars will be allocated to paving the 2,200-metre (yard) runway, building the new airport terminal and constructing the agricultural centre.

The remainder will be spent on agricultural development in the province, ensuring markets for the farmers and providing technical assistance.

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August 24, 2008 at 5:08 pm

Posted in Agriculture, Aid, Drugs

Taxpayers to fund Afghan farmers

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Farmers in Afghanistan are to be given millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money to persuade them to stop growing poppy crops for heroin.

By Melissa Kite, Deputy Political Editor
The Telegraph (UK) / August 23, 2008

Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, will announce this week that the Government is to pour money into the war‑torn Helmand province to encourage farmers to switch from poppy cultivation to wheat.

Ministers are to launch a campaign to persuade 26,000 farmers each to grow a hectare (2½ acres) of wheat in place of poppies, to cut heroin trade and address food shortages.

Afghanistan is facing a food crisis this autumn as a drought combined with soaring food prices has led to shortages and hunger. But the sky-high prices have encouraged some farmers to move to legal crops.

Mr Alexander will say that the Department for International Development (DfID) is donating £2million to the governor of Helmand’s short-term counter-narcotics plan, which is also backed by Britain’s Civil-Military Mission to Helmand, which is providing a further £2.125 million, and the US Agency for International Development.

The new initiative comes as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime prepares to publish its opium survey for 2008, which is expected to show the poppy harvest has stabilised or slightly reduced.

In a two-pronged attack, wheat seed, fertiliser and expert advice will be given to farmers in secure areas where crops can easily be monitored. The plan covers more than 37,000 acres of farmland.

In dangerous areas where the insurgents are still active, farmers will be able to collect seeds from British military bases but not fertiliser, which could be used on poppies.

But the sting in the tail is a warning that if farmers given help still grow poppies their crops will be wiped out.

In the rest of Afghanistan farmers will be offered vouchers to buy subsidised seed, fertiliser and tools. The DfID is providing a further £2million for this project.

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August 24, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Posted in Agriculture, Aid, Drugs