Can Afghan Farmers Move Beyond Opium?

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Parwiz / Reuters

Farmers work in a wheat field in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, May 12, 2010

It has been a long time since Afghanistan was hailed for its raisins. Or for its pomegranates, almonds or 142 varieties of apricot. Today the largely agrarian country may be better recognized as the world's leading exporter of opium, but 30 years ago its major crops were of a much sweeter variety.

Don Dwyer, a longtime expert in international agricultural development, longs for those days. The nostalgia goes back to a single apricot he tasted in 1980 in Saudi Arabia. "I was so stunned at the flavor, I asked the store owner, 'Where in the hell did this come from?' And the guy said, 'Afghanistan.' And I said, 'Wow, maybe someday I should go there.'"

Dwyer finally showed up in February 2009, with a USAID contract to work on one of the many ongoing projects designed to put the war-ravaged country back on the path toward agricultural glory. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also dispatched 60 advisers to boost the efforts of Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, a bureau that was reinvigorated 18 months ago with the naming of its new chief, Mohammad Asif Rahimi. "The ministry did not have a workable framework [for agricultural development]. They had created a master plan, which was too general," says Rahimi, whose appointment was perhaps conveniently timed with the changeover of the White House to President Barack Obama and a new U.S. approach to Afghanistan.

The first thing Rahimi did in his post was put together a viable new national agriculture plan focusing on four components: natural-resource management, production, postharvest handling and marketing and, most importantly, he says, restructuring the ministry to bring it into the 21st century.

His U.S. partners seem pleased, and the ambitious new minister was featured prominently in a recent visit to Washington by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet when Rahimi met with his American counterpart, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The key to the ministry's success, according to Dwyer and many other experts involved, lies in the development of what are known as high-value, high-volume orchard crops. What makes products like pomegranates, almonds and especially grapes so exciting, experts say, is that a plot of these legal gems can be five times more profitable than an equivalent-size plot of poppies. The drawback, however, is start-up time. "How long does it take to do each one? Therein lies the dilemma," says Dwyer, who helps run the Accelerating Sustainable Agriculture Program at a demonstration and training farm on the outskirts of Kabul.

To the impoverished farmer, it's no contest. Poppies, which are cultivated to produce opium, are an annually harvested crop. The establishment of a grape vineyard could take three to five years, says Dwyer. Compound that with the fact that poppy growers face a strong market and get monetary guarantees from their buyers up front, and there's little incentive to switch to the legal stuff. "Until now, I don't believe there has been an adequate focus on how long it takes to break that annual cycle of production," Dwyer says.

But the production cycle is only part of the problem. Even with a recent poppy blight that has wiped out 70% of this year's illicit crop, most say physical security continues to factor most prominently in any rehabilitation of the legal agricultural sector. In southern Afghanistan, which includes the country's historic breadbasket province of Helmand, a deteriorating security situation over the past year because of heavy fighting between NATO forces and Taliban insurgents has made development in many areas difficult, if not impossible. "To be honest, very little efforts have happened there," says Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament from the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar.

Basic infrastructure including roads, electricity and packaging centers is also essential if high-value crops are going to reap any real profits — another step that has been typically overlooked in the hype over expanding production, according to Mohamed Hasham Aslami, an expert in saffron-farming with the Danish aid organization DACAAR in the western city of Herat.

Saffron is also a high-value crop: one kilogram can fetch $2,000 to $3,000 in the local market, says Aslami. That compares to just over $90 a kilogram for poppies. But, he adds, "The Agriculture Ministry focuses on production only. The farmer's problem is processing, development, getting a brand and entering the international market ... There is no clear international marketing system in Afghanistan for saffron."

While experts like Aslami focus on expanding the market of a potential gold-mine crop, others, like Ryan Brewster, an agricultural adviser on loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, say it's more practical to focus on enhancing the production of crops that farmers are already growing — like wheat and corn. "Getting a farmer to try something new is very, very difficult. So we're trying to get them to take what they're doing now and just do it better," says Brewster, who advises a U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in the volatile Helmand province.

Still, the sometimes limited expertise and short-term deployments of the various development teams — particularly the Agricultural Development Teams (ADTs) that are dispatched by the U.S. National Guard from a rotating roster of states — can be counterproductive. "Up at Bagram right now, Kentucky is there. It used to be Nebraska. Down in Gardez, it used to be Tennessee. Now it's Oklahoma," Dwyer says of the currently stationed ADTs. "They transition in every nine months to a year." That makes it difficult to implement a long-term strategy, Dwyer says, which is an absolute must if Afghanistan's agriculture is to get back on track.

It gets even more complicated when you consider the hundreds of other international organizations that are currently working alongside the U.S. on Afghanistan's agricultural development, all under the Afghan ministry's command umbrella. But, so far, Rahimi says, there has been significant progress. Over 1,000 new orchards have been planted, 30,000 tons of improved wheat seeds were distributed and ministry officials in provincial centers are working with foreign counterparts on development projects including aid programs to wean farmers off poppy.

Still, the strategy is only a year into its implementation, and many complain that government involvement at the local level remains minimal to nonexistent. "The road is long," says Rahimi. "Agricultural production in Afghanistan needs long-term commitments and investments — not only on the projects, but also on the institutions of the ministry."

Dwyer says he hopes to see his USAID-managed training farm, the Badam Bagh farm northwest of Kabul, eventually transferred to ministry control, but he has yet to receive a liaison from the ministry to coordinate that process. "In the last year, there has been a national so-called strategy for agriculture. And it fits within what we're trying to do as ASAP," says Dwyer of his efforts at Badam Bagh. But, he adds, "For the last eight years, I believe there has been a lot of time squandered." It may take even longer to get Afghanistan back on its feet.