By Nasir Salehi
HERAT -- Afghan saffron farmers have welcomed a recent decision by the government to ban all imports of the spice, a move made in response to an influx of inferior saffron smuggled from Iran.
On October 7, President Ashraf Ghani banned the imports of saffron and saffron bulbs to protect the product's nascent local market, mainly in Herat Province.
In the past, Afghan saffron has been repeatedly ranked as the world's best, but low-quality saffron smuggled recently from Iran has either been mixed in with Afghan saffron or marketed as such, tainting the reputation of the product.
Lower quality Iranian saffron is illegally entering Afghanistan via mafia circles and then is exported globally as Afghan saffron, according to Abdulsabur Rahmani, director of the Herat provincial Agriculture Department.
"Saffron is mainly smuggled into Afghanistan from Iran. Iranian saffron cannot find international buyers because of the international sanctions against Iran," Rahmani told Salaam Times.
"In addition, the low quality of Iranian saffron has considerably damaged the reputation of Afghan saffron on international markets," he said.
"The decision made by President Ghani to prevent the import of foreign-produced saffron will have a positive impact on Afghan saffron since foreign markets are interested in purchasing Afghan saffron."
"This decision can have a considerable impact in controlling the market and increasing the price of saffron," he added.
Afghan saffron in the domestic market has lost more than 40% of its value, mainly because of an increase in the illegal import and smuggling of Iranian saffron. With the new import ban, however, the price of Afghan saffron is beginning to rise again.
"Preventing the illegal imports of saffron is having a great impact on raising the price of Afghan saffron," Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock Ministry spokesperson Akbar Rustami told Salaam Times.
"The latest report we have received suggests that the price of Afghan saffron in domestic markets increased 15% to 20% after the ban was put in place," he told Salaam Times, adding that "this move could potentially raise the level of saffron production in Afghanistan."
"In 2017, we produced 12 tonnes of saffron and the current year's production is expected to reach 14 tonnes," he continued.
The ban should become permanent, argue some agriculture insiders.
"Preventing the importation of saffron and saffron bulbs from neighbouring countries will cause the price of Afghan saffron to increase," Abdul Wasi Omar Ali, an agriculture analyst in Herat, told Salaam Times. "It will lead to an increase in the volume of saffron production since the price directly affects the level of production."
"The ban on the illegal imports of saffron into Afghanistan will encourage Afghan saffron farmers to expand their cultivation, which will potentially create hundreds of jobs," Ali said.
"On a macro level, this will improve the economic situation of Afghanistan," he added.
"We welcome the decision by the Afghan government and consider it a great and appropriate measure because we have suffered immense financial losses during the past couple of years," Abdul Shukur Isar, a saffron farmer from Herat, told Salaam Times.
"The poor saffron smuggled from Iran was hurting the reputation of Afghan saffron," Isar said. "Our saffron will once again find its rightful place and its market."
"We call on the Afghan government to stay firm and decisive in adhering to this ban," he continued.
"Those who import bad Iranian saffron into Afghanistan should be prosecuted... and those who export Iranian saffron under the name of Afghan saffron should also be punished," Isar added.
"We are extremely happy that the Afghan government has finally responded positively to the demands of saffron farmers," Nasar Ahmad Atayee, another saffron farmer in Herat, told Salaam Times.
"This will have a positive impact on Herat's saffron market. We ask the president to stand firm and act in accordance with his decree," he said.
"The [Afghan] government should not allow racketeers and mafia groups to [illegally] import inferior Iranian saffron to later export it under the name of Afghan saffron," he added.
How likely are the Taliban to hold direct peace talks with the Afghan government before presidential elections in July?