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AFGHANISTAN: Taliban accused of forcing farmers to grow opium poppy instead of saffron

December 15, 2010 |  7:28 am

Iran_saffron_threads

It is as pricey as precious metals or illicit drugs, and in some kitchens it is increasingly becoming even more valued. Saffron, a spice that grows in Afghanistan, could be a solution for farmers who want to make ends meet without growing poppy flowers that can be turned into opium and heroin that enrich and empower drug barons.

But this week, the spokesman for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan spoke of a "disturbing trend" in the western portion of the country: The Taliban is forcing farmers to stop growing the savory spice and switch to more nefarious crops. 

"Insurgents are pressuring Herat farmers to switch to growing poppy instead of saffron so they can use the money from drug sales to fund their operations," German army Gen. Josef Blotz told reporters Monday. "In areas north of Herat city, insurgents have destroyed fields planted with saffron, and last month they attacked two trucks carrying saffron bulbs for planting and killed the truckers who were delivering them."

A Taliban spokesman reached by telephone Wednesday denied the charge.

The episode underscores the fragility of Afghan agriculture. Billions of dollars in international aid money spent in Afghanistan have markedly improved economic life in the country's cities. But in the countryside, where the bulk of Afghans live and toil and the Taliban has its strongest foothold, conditions remain primitive, and fields often lie fallow because of drought or war. 

Irrigation canals are ruined, and many of the roads used to get produce to market are rutted, dangerous and slow. 

Opium, which once harvested has no expiration date, ends up as the crop of choice for many farmers. But saffron could work as well.  

According to Blotz, the farmers tell authorities the Taliban dislikes saffron because it can't make money off it the way it can get cash via the drug trade, a charge the Taliban denies. 

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, denied any attacks on saffron growers. He dismissed the NATO allegations as silly. The Taliban is waging holy war against the occupier, not telling farmers to grow one crop or another, he said.

"Saffron is a legal crop," he told Babylon & Beyond. "We are not hindering people from cultivating saffron. Land and cultivation belong to the people. They can grow whatever they want to grow."

But Blotz said "the Taliban has taken direct responsibility for destroying" the saffron.

He cited Mullah Sayed Zaher, a senior Taliban leader, whom he said admitted to destroying two trucks carrying saffron bulbs. Zaher, according to Blotz, vowed that he and his men would burn any field that grows crops other than poppy.  

"Despite the Taliban's deliberate attempts to destroy the economic progress of farmers," he said, "Afghan national security forces are working to protect Afghan farmers from this threat."

-- Borzou Daragahi and Aimal Yaqoubi in Kabul

Photo: Strands of saffron. Credit: Rainer Zenz / Wikimedia Commons

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