by Abdul Haleem, Sayed Mominzada
GHAZNI, Afghanistan, Dec. 6 (Xinhua) -- "Growing saffron is much easier than growing poppies and its price is several times more than poppies and therefore I am calling upon the farmers in the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces to substitute poppies with saffron," a farmer in the eastern Ghazni province, Jilani Ahmadi, told Xinhua recently.
Kandahar and the neighboring Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces where anti-government militants including the Taliban are active are the areas responsible for producing a major part of all poppies harvested to produce opium in Afghanistan annually.
Despite the government's tireless war on drugs, people in unregulated areas have been taking advantage of the situation to grow poppies to fuel the highly lucrative international heroin trade.
The growing of poppies and their byproducts have been on a constant rise in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
A survey conducted by the Afghan Ministry for Counter-Narcotics and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released in October, revealed a 43 percent increase in the amount of drugs harvested, compared to last year.
The estimated opium production in 2016, according to the survey, was 4,800 tons, compared to 3,300 tons in 2015 and, similarly, the land used to cultivate poppies in the current year had increased 10 percent to 201,000 hectares compared to last year.
The majority of Afghan opium, the raw material used in the manufacturing of heroin, according to officials, has been produced in the troubled provinces where Taliban militants are active and security is fragile.
Gathering the beautiful purple flowers of saffron on his small piece of land, Ahmadi, the hardworking farmer, said happily that the price of one gram of saffron here in Ghazni is worth 500 afghanis (around 8 U.S. dollars), whereas 1 kg of poppies costs some 10,000 to 12,000 afghanis (150 U.S. dollars to 180 U.S. dollars) depending on its quality.
Meanwhile, Mohammad Zakria Hotak, Director of Agriculture Department in Ghazni province said that his administration has been encouraging the farmers since 2014 to grow saffron on their lands.
"The Agriculture Department in Ghazni has been distributing saffron seeds to the farmers over the past three years and the result so far is promising," Hotak told Xinhua.
Numerous farmers have abandoned poppy cultivation and begun growing saffron over the past couple of years, the official said.
He also added optimistically that three hectares of land would be used to grow saffron next year in Ghazni province, saying that the saffron plantation would be gradually expanded to replace the poppies.
Afghanistan's saffron in terms of quality has been named as the world's "best saffron" by the International Taste and Quality Institute in Brussels and the war-torn country produces more than 4.5 tons of saffron annually.