June 14th, 2012
12:56 PM GMT
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Herat, Afghanistan (CNN) - In several Afghan provinces the fight to curb the growing of opium poppies seems to be a losing battle.

In 2011 a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime survey said opium poppy cultivation rose by 7% overall from the prior year. Opium poppy has been one of the main sources of funding for the Taliban especially since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Poppy cultivation is expected to grow partly because the opium poppy's prices are rising and because farmers are having a hard time deriving as much profit from alternative crops.

But one Afghan province is showing real progress in doing just that. The alternative crop is the world's most expensive spice, saffron.

Farmers in Herat, Western Afghanistan, say not only does saffron fetch more profit than poppy but they have also found an enticing way to market it. It is packaged in beautiful little tins or what look like perfume bottles. The farmers are hoping the government will do even more to help Afghan saffron become a known commodity worldwide.

Herat is an ancient city marked by a towering mosque, a distinct Iranian influence, bustling markets and an improving economy. What is happening in Herat province, the government says, is a good argument for a spice revolution: replacing opium poppy crops.

"Herat province has been cleaned of 99% of its poppy cultivation," Basheer Ahmad Ahmadi, the Head of Agricultural affairs in the Herat province's agricultural department, told CNN. "The 1% is in places with some security problems. The government, cooperation of NGOs, some donations and USAID has played an important role to help and encourage saffron cultivation."

But for farmers like Hajji Ibrahim Aadil, it's not just as simple as deciding to switch. After changing his crop from poppy to saffron he says he had unwanted visitors.

"Taliban took money from me," Aadil told CNN. "I walked for days with my eyes wrapped with a piece of cloth. I was kept in a well for two days. Finally, they told me to stop promoting the cultivation of saffron."

Instead, he and his 13 family members moved, and now freely grow and sell saffron, which he says brings in more profit than poppy ever did. Enough to buy a large home in a safe and relatively peaceful environment, where his young daughters are going to school.

"I always wanted my girls to be educated," Aadil said.

The Afghan government, along with NATO members, has been trying to stem the growth of the opium poppy. Still, 90 % of the world's opium is produced in Afghanistan and it brought in an estimated $1.4 billion last year. Much of that ended up with Taliban and government-linked warlords.

Saffron, which is used in food and can be used as a dye, is being looked at as a potential gold mine in Herat. It is a far easier crop to plant and harvest than opium poppy, and it aligns with the tenets of Islam and gives new opportunities for Afghan women.

Pari Gul Danish Yaar sits at a table with a large pile of saffron in front of her. She is carefully eyeing each strand as she takes her tweezers and picks out the unwanted pieces.

"Even a small mistake shouldn't be made," she said. "I take the useless things out in the best possible way. It is used for important purposes like eating and it is necessary to wash your hands with soap before handling it."

She is happy doing this delicate work because she says she wouldn't have a job if it weren't for saffron cultivation. Working with poppy was forbidden in her household.

"Neither my family would allow me and nor would I participate in it," she said. "I am very happy with this work because it is very useful for Afghanistan and other countries. This is a legal work."

Dozens of companies have been formed, with the aim of exporting Afghan saffron abroad. In one store with mirrored walls the packaging gives you a sense that whatever is inside must be something special. The glittering shop has what looks like perfume bottles in different shapes and sizes and small decorated tins. Inside are strands of saffron. Cooks know you only need a few strands of the expensive spice to make a meal mouth watering.

But Saffron's success here isn't without pitfalls.

"There were times that we couldn't export our saffron to other countries," Aadil said. "The government of Afghanistan should help out with this. We don't have any department that can standardize and market our saffron so that our saffron could be sold to other countries, like Iran, Spain and other foreign countries."

And since the government and some NGOs are handing out so many saffron bulbs to encourage farmers such as Aadil, there is the potential for flooding the market and bringing the price of this precious spice down. In a country still suffering from decades of war, there is also the issue of quality control, and farmers say they need more and better processing and packaging plants.

It is something Ahmadi says is being worked out. "We are having processing and packing problems but I assure you that we will overcome these problems in the next two years," he said. "The main problem that we have is issuing certificate. Now we have three saffron laboratories in Herat agricultural department where we can do three kinds of tests: color, smell and taste."

Afghans like farmer Aadil hope the obstacles farmers face will disappear as they eye the world markets where the deep red spice can fetch thousands of dollars per pound.

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Jonesyman

    This is a wonderful thing – it's legal, peaceful, & beneficial not just to the farmers but to the world because each farmer that changes from opium to saffron both reduces the world supply of narcotics and keeps cash from insurgent hands.
    I seriously hope whoever wins the coming election will see to it the US back this (and other projects like it around the world) 100%.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  2. alex

    they are going to be soooo disappointed when they pack their pipes and light it, mister.

    June 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  3. Rapier1

    I think this is great but there is nothing saying it will keep money out of the hands of insurgents. They'll just move into a protection racket or set up businesses to sell saffron that funnel the money into the less savory hands.

    June 14, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  4. frank

    The CIA is the one who taught those mullhad how to deal drug internationaly....

    June 14, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  5. SaffronOP

    Jonesyman, there's one thing you left out besides legal, peaceful, & beneficial.


    A good turn, for once.

    June 14, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  6. BCJonah


    June 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  7. Babak from Los Angeles

    I will miss the opium:(

    June 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  8. Babak from Los Angeles

    @Jonesyman; Well said! And I hope so!. I was born in that part of the world. The way it works is, the Taliban will show up at your farm, where they pick up their supply to sell to finance their war. They don't ask nicely. If the farmer does not have the cropps, they will kill his kids in front of him and will be back in a few months to pickup again.... That is the ME for you.

    June 14, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  9. Sanho Tree

    Good in theory, but wrong planting seasons. It compliments poppy season, but doesn't compete against it. What stops farmers from planting both in the same year?

    June 14, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  10. Zia

    Well this is the best what one can think of and I am sure this will go down in changing lives. Saffaron has been growing in Khurrasan since ages and so far we see that Iran and Kashmiris profit from this alot. Herat is the right place and similar sort of climatic conditions like Meshad in Iran, which is known for best saffaron. Why not Herat can make headway in the international market with proper planning and growth of this crop. I wish the farmers great luck and pray for their well being.

    June 15, 2012 at 4:43 am |
  11. AIR

    Unless the author knows something we don't know the below statement needs to be scratch. Considering the Afghan gov't from the begining of the U.S invasion of Afghan the denial of the current gov't is there is no dealing or contact with Taliban officials. However this article is implying that the current Afghan gov't and Taliban drug lords are in dealings as of last year, where is this info comming from, has the author realize there's a war going on in Afghan I don't think the Taliban is blantely out in the open cultivating Poppy fields If the sale of Poppy resulted in so much revenue last year for Afghan then the article should be written as "Whom in Afghan is proffiting from Poppy sale" and direct the article to the true criminals of the country< I hope the audiance is getting to where im pointing...This article is yellow page journalism. CNN do your research....

    "Still, 90 % of the world's opium is produced in Afghanistan and it brought in an estimated $1.4 billion last year. Much of that ended up with Taliban and government-linked warlords."

    June 15, 2012 at 5:15 am |
  12. AIR

    Also to mention you can't grow 1.4 billion Opium in the basement of a house, the Taliban had to be given protection in a open field to grow that much Poppy. One would have to assume all U.S forces in Afghan is blind including the Afghan Gov't...

    June 15, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  13. Mike

    This is a great development, but it is a myth that opium is a "major" source of funding for the Taliban. The UN estimates less than 10 percent of Taliban income is derived from the opium industry. By far the largest source of Taliban funding is our "ally," Saudi Arabia. According to the UN, about 60 percent of Taliban funding comes from the Bush family's dearest friends, who are untouchable, of course.

    June 15, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  14. AIR

    "Saudi" without a doubt is a problem for the world security issues we see today. Will something ever be done to fix this problem...I really doubt it will happen in mylife time. The statement "the con of man is so darken" we can't begin to phantom the world we live in is orcharasted by powerful men we elect, and trust to guide us.

    June 15, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  15. Tired

    I may be wrong but isnt saffron/saffrole/sassafras etc the base ingredient in MDMA (ecstacy), MDA, etc? Pretty sure it is. Hooray!l

    June 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  16. Stephen in New York

    "I'm just mad about Saffron. And she's just mad about me......"

    June 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  17. Donovan

    I'm so mad about saffron, and saffron's mad about me...they call me mellow yellow!

    June 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  18. dave6969

    Funny how the Taliban eliminated much of poppy cultivation, and the Farc in Columbia now supports itself with cocaine procedes. So much for moral integrity.

    June 16, 2012 at 3:59 am |
  19. soulcatcher

    Would any of you trust eating anything from afghanistan?

    June 18, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  20. t3chsupport

    Great, so now they don't want to take over America, or even the world, they want to control the universe.

    June 18, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  21. Juan J. San Mames

    We are Vanilla, Saffron Imports. We are importing Afghan saffron which is superior to any from Spain, even the DO denomination of origin (206 units of color) is inferior in quality to Afghan which hit 242.03 in the ISO-3236 yet it is 2/3 cheaper. Instead of being so negative what don't you see the positive way of helping Afghan farmers by buying their products and bring our troops home? Go to http://www.saffron.com and educate yourself about saffron by reading "The Consumer Guide to Saffron Purchasing? Thank you. Juan J. San Mames President saffron.com

    June 21, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  22. Just Me

    Article correction: During Taliban control, the poppy was not being grown much. Under American control, the poppy trade has flourished especially since the CIA has been the leader in "missions" in Afghanistan.

    Gotta pay for all those special ops they want to have.

    July 9, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
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    August 19, 2012 at 9:37 am |
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