In recent years Afghanistan has become the biggest producer of opium worldwide. In 2007, this country on the Hindu Kush produced 8, 200 tons of opium – 2.3 times as much as in 2003 – with an export value of four billion US dollars. This figure is more than 50 % of the (legal) gross national product of the country. Practically 100 % of the world market for opium is now covered by Afghanistan.
Even though most of the profit margin goes to dealers, the farmers still earn seven to ten times more than with, for example, wheat. The livelihood of around two million people in rural areas (especially in the south and east of the country) depends on opium production. In this article, Ulrich Helberg, an expert in organic agriculture and herbs, presents an organic alternative to growing opium.
NGOs and international development aid organisations are desperately looking for alternatives sources of income for small farmers but, in view of the very high value-added in the case of opium production, it is difficult to come up with agricultural crops that can compete. The farmers don’t have a free choice whether to grow the poppies from which opium is extracted. They neither consume the drug themselves nor is its production sanctioned by Islam, the predominant religion in Afghanistan. But more than 20 years of war have taken their toll on the population and have destroyed whole generations of families. And on top of all that, there is the payment of loans to the drug dealers and the pressure of the Taliban, who finance their activities, at least in part, via the drug trade. The fact that they are almost permanently in debt to the dealers makes it practically impossible for them to get out of opium production. Moreover, poppy growing is not easy: for seven months a year, the whole family has to be in the fields more or less every day to weed, to thin the plants and to extract the juice, the raw opium, from the seed heads. All of this leaves little time for other activities.
Pressure from the international security forces and the Afghan army on farmers to eliminate opium from their fields has been only moderately successful, and it deprives farmers of their livelihood when there are no realistic alternatives available.
Since 2004, the German aid organisation Deutsche Welthungerhilfe has been implementing the project “Roses for Nangarhar” in the province Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan (the provincial capital is Jalalabad – see the map above). It is a part of the project “Alternative Livelihoods” that is financed by the EU and works on developing alternative sources of income for the rural population. The aim of the project is to offer farmers in the province an alternative to the ever increasing opium cropping. Thus, with the help of the oil-producing rose (Rosa Damascena), at least some of the opium crop can be replaced. Valuable rose oil can be extracted from the flowers and it is used in, among other things, many high-value perfumes.
There are currently about 300 families growing roses on a small part of their land. In total, 42 ha are given over to growing roses, with more plots being planned. One hectare yields about 4,000 to 5,000 kg of flowers, which is what is needed to produce one litre of rose oil. Since the spring of 2007, the first plots and all the products grown on them have been certified in keeping with the EU organic guidelines.
Rose oil is produced in distilling equipment that is made locally (picture) and operated by the project employees. During the season there are extra sources of income for the farmers here too. As well as rose oil that is exported to Europe, rose water is also produced, and it is sold locally and further afield. Rose water is used mainly in baking, but it is also a cooling drink. The export product is bought by the company Wala Heilmittel in Germany, and it was Wala Heilmittel that originally had the idea of getting the German aid organisation to implement the rose project. As soon as drying facilities have been installed, other products like dried roses and rose buds will be produced for the export market.
The plan is to convert the project into a privately run enterprise and to put it into Afghan hands during the course of this year. A joint venture with a foreign company is also a possibility, provided the long-term operation of the project and support for the farmers can be guaranteed. However, the German aid organisation Deutsche Welthungerhilfe will act as an advisor to the new enterprise for some time to come. The production capacity and the number of farmers will be increased over the next few years.
You might well ask, of course: “Couldn’t Afghan farmers be doing something better than producing organic roses for the international aroma industry?” The answer is unequivocal – by supporting the project the farmers are getting about half the income per unit of land compared with opium production, and no other agricultural crop in Afghanistan has been able to achieve this return. Another advantage is the relatively low input of labour in rose production. Apart from harvesting the flowers, that takes about four to six weeks a year, the roses have to be pruned only every one to two years. A disadvantage is the fact that it takes at least two years from planting for the roses to produce a crop. In the first year, vegetables or fodder plants can be grown under the rose bushes, but some loss of yield cannot be avoided.
The future of oil rose cropping in Afghanistan will depend to a considerable degree on opium production. At the moment (2008), the army is exerting such pressure that many farmers are giving up poppy cultivation and are increasingly showing interest in growing roses. In this country, that has been so devastated by war, the rose stands not only for peace but also shows that there are realistic and attractive alternatives to growing poppies – despite the challenging situation in this region. Admittedly, this alternative is on a limited scale. There are nearly 200,000 ha of opium cropping in Afghanistan, although this area of land has definitely got to be gradually reduced.
At the same time, rose growing could be extended and stabilised. Dried roses could also be produced, and the people in charge ought to be thinking of more ways of diversifying the product. Because of the competition from opium, it is essential to think in terms of higher-value products. It should also be borne in mind that the technology must not be too complicated in view of the educational level of the population. So the direction to go in is dried herbs, herbal waters made from peppermint, caraway, etc. In this way, the economics underpinning the war could be changed, and the farmers could be helped into producing legal crops.