Afghanistan has been a raging battlefield since the late 1970s. The Taliban, which were once the political opposition of a repressive regime, implemented a very strict form of Sharia law when they came to power in 1996. They were condemned by international organizations for mass homicide against civilians and especially for their malpractices against women. After the 9/11 attacks, US troops invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime and capture Osama Bin Laden. What was meant to be a short-lived and intense war, turned out to last another 13 years and devastated the entire country. The Afghan people suffered greatly under both circumstances, leading it to be a country with one of the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy. What can the world do to help rebuild this war-torn country?
Afghanistan is renowned for its pomegranates. According to experts, the Afghan pomegranates are bigger, redder and juicier than their counterparts originating from India and the Middle East. What’s even more promising, is that the pomegranate orchards are slowly taking over the (illegal, but profitable) poppy fields, as Afghanistan is still the world’s leading exporter of opium products and the market is still growing.
Pomegranate production is concentrated in the province of Kandahar in the South of Afghanistan, bordering with Pakistan. In this province, approximately 10,000 metric tons of pomegranates is cultivated each year of the 24,000 Mt nation-wide. Until very recently, Kandahar was the centre of Taliban rule and it remains a very disputed area still today, with farmers claiming the Taliban planted mines on their land to prevent the trees from being watered, thus ruining crops. Fortunately, UN troops are gaining more and more ground and farmers are reaping the benefits. One farmer named Pahlawan, a resident of Kandahar said: “My cousin had pomegranates planted on 40,000 square metres of land. He expanded the orchard over a further 10,000 sq m last year. The fact that he created a new orchard shows that pomegranates make a good profit.”
The bulk of the production remains within national borders. Markets in villages and bigger towns are flooded with pomegranates and locals do all sorts of things with them: eating raw, making juice and use for medicinal purposes.
Afghanistan produces a wide variety of crops like almonds, grapes and apricots, but pomegranates stand out for multiple reasons:
- The crop is very drought resistant
- Can be cultivated as high as 1500m above sea level
- The trees can grow perfectly well on less-fertile soils
- Trees can be planted closer together than most other crops
- The plant can withstand mild frost
- The hard skin makes them easy to transport in wooden crates without too much damage
- The fruits have a long storage shelf-life and do not need to be cooled during storage
However, there are multiple reasons why the market is not growing as much as it could.
Afghanistan lacks proper transportation, storage and cooling infrastructure, making the fruits more susceptible to damage, bruising, contamination and spoilage. Roads are often dangerous, especially in the disputed Kandahar region, making long-distance travel very risky.
Secondly, earlier this year it was discovered that a new breed of poppy had been introduced in Afghanistan: the so-called ‘’Chinese seeds’’ make for poppies that grow year-round and therefore have a much higher annual yield compared to regular poppies and certainly compared to pomegranates. The poppy industry is financially more favorable for farmers –despite being illegal. Joel Hafvenstein, author of the book “Opium Season” about poppy farms in Southern Afghanistan, said: “Traffickers provide advance payments, credit, contract farming arrangements, technical advice, a whole package of benefits that don't come with any other crop in Afghanistan." Since the introduction of this new breed in 2015, existence of poppy farms has increased with almost 45% over the course of one year.
The main reason, however, is the lack of adequate international interest. Currently, Afghan pomegranates are sold in India, Pakistan, The United Arab Emirates and Iran, because the trade routes are easy. What is visibly missing is interest from Europe and the United States, despite the rising interest in pomegranates among health food advocates for their high antioxidant content and anti-cancer properties. The unstable political situation prevented the Afghan government from creating a central body to test crops on quality and pest control, which makes it virtually impossible to export the fruits to developed countries who hold tight safety regulations.
As Attaullah Afghan, a council member in the province of Helmand, the country’s biggest poppy producing region, said: “The government should come up with a policy according to which opportunities are created for people to grow legal crops. Many people cultivate poppy because of poverty; they earn more from poppy than from growing vegetables so this is the way they solve their problems.”
Novel initiatives such as Plant For Peace and Pomegreat are trying to make Afghan pomegranates popular again by using them for fruit bars or by buying the concentrated juice from a processing plant in Kabul. In return, farmers get enough money to provide for their families and make an additional profit which they can use for better infrastructure and irrigation techniques.
Global farming organizations remain optimistic. If Afghan pomegranates are introduced to the global market again, not only could it boost the economy and drive people away from illegal poppy farming, it could also put Afghanistan and its people back on the map as eager to participate in trade and willing to open up to more business opportunities, rather than just exotic, illiterate and war-torn.