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Fighting Afghanistan’s
Drug Trade By Growing Pomegranates Instead
Of Poppy

One of the difficulties for U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that defeating the enemy is not enough. There is still a tremendous danger that the country will collapse into lawlessness and that anarchy will create opportunities for terrorists to reestablish themselves.

One big issue is that the illegal drug industry is now believed to be Afghanistan’s largest private industry. So efforts are now being made to encourage poppy growers to switch to growing pomegranates. The Financial Times in London ran the story, which is entitled, From poppies to pomegranates: NATO tries to turn around a narco-state.

A little side note: Although the Financial Times stuck NATO into the headline, the story doesn’t mention any country other than the United States as paying for any of this:

The high-security hanger just yards from the runway of the Kandahar Air Field must be one of the most unusual outposts of the international grocery trade anywhere in the world.

Normally, the cavernous structure at this strategically important military base in Afghanistan holds stores and equipment used by the international forces attempting to subdue the resurgent Taliban in the southern province. But last Autumn it was receiving shipments of pomegranates on enormous flatbed trucks.

Well over 1,000 tonnes of the bulbous fruit have been brought from the orchards around the city to an airfield that normally plays host to jets, helicopters and unmanned spy drones. The boxed Kandahari pomegranates — among the world’s best, connoisseurs claim — are then loaded into cargo planes chartered by the US military and flown on to supermarket shelves in Dubai, Vancouver and London.

Shoppers in Dubai pay up to $11 (£5.60, €7.40) a kilo for the highest-quality fruit, compared with the $1.20 locals will stretch to. For the US government-funded contractors overseeing this export business, those price differentials will be key to helping Afghanistan develop legal cash-crops capable of taking on the country’s booming narcotics business. Officials from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) say that the country has huge potential to make money by reclaiming its reputation — lost after decades of war — for producing high-quality fruit.

Certainly, the comparable value of poppy and pomegranate crops makes the fruit seem like a very an attractive financial alternative. According to research by David Mansfield, a British expert on the economics of poppy farming, the gross price for a hectare of poppy in Helmand this year is around $3,697. Farmers’ profits can be dramatically eaten away by the high cost of hiring workers to collect the flower’s resin during the short harvest season. By contrast, USAID says that this year farmers have been able to make around $5,000 for a hectare of pomegranates….

The US strategy is to link farmers with international markets, in part through a series of seven big agricultural fairs hosted around the country, and in part by telling them how to meet the quality standards demanded by retailers such as Carrefour, the French supermarket that stocks Kandahari pomegranates in its stores in Dubai. That entails teaching farmers and traders to separate their fruit into the standard sizes demanded by stores in developed markets, shipping them in specially printed cardboard boxes rather than packed with straw in wooden crates and generally trying to overcome buyers’ suspicion of the “made in Afghanistan” label.

As part of a $6.6m Kandahar orchard programme, USAID is also offering credit to farmers and planting new pomegranate trees, particularly on former poppy land….

This year’s shipments of fruit to Dubai will, according to the team of advisers from Chemonics, one of the biggest USAID contractors in Afghanistan, only break even — although they have high hopes that in the coming years they will be able to raise their prices as Kandahari pomegranates regain their reputation for being among the best in the world.

The scheme is meant to be self-sustaining but for the time being the pomegranate farmers are enjoying substantial uncosted subsidies. The airlifting of the fruits is being done at a fifth of its normal cost by a cargo company that is happy to let the scheme use planes which would otherwise be flying out of the country empty. Dog handlers who check the pomegranate boxes for drugs and explosives also do so as a favour, free of charge.

Security is going to be an ongoing problem. Half of the pomegranates seen by the FT during a visit in November came from “behind Taliban lines”, according to one of the agricultural contractors who cannot be named for security reasons. In late October the Taliban attacked Aghandab district directly to the north of Kandahar city. Although the insurgents were later expelled by Canadian and Afghan forces, agricultural advisers working for Chemonoics said they were still engaged in “combat farming” and that large parts of the district were no longer accessible.

Pomegranate is regarded as one of the easiest crops to export internationally. The fruit is not nearly as perishable as seedless grapes, another crop that prospers in Afghanistan. It also requires minimal processing compared with raisins or other dried fruit.

But high-value agricultural products are often the ones that take the longest to mature. A pomegranate orchard takes between six and nine years, almonds up to four years, and apricot up to five. In contrast poppy, the crop of which is currently being planted around the country, takes just six months.

The full article deals with the numerous obstacles to the program, including the fact that in many cases a request from a drug dealer that a farmer grow poppy is “an offer you can’t refuse” and the fact that the government is not really 100% behind the effort.

We doubt this type of effort can have much of an impact. How many Afghan pomegranates can the world economy absorb?

Still, the folks at POM Wonderful have been pouring money into research on the healthy attributes of the pomegranate. Now on this research, and its potential for boosting pomegranate consumption, may lie the future success of the war on terror. Who would have thunk?

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