NANGARHAR -- Strawberries are becoming a feasible alternative to poppies, the foundation of illicit Afghan drug production, in Nangarhar province.
Rahim Gul, a resident of the Fatehabad area in Surkh Rod district, Nangarhar, has planted strawberries on 0.4 hectare of his land and employed 10 labourers to pick strawberries every morning and take them to the market for sale.
Three years ago, Gul was still growing poppies on his land because the Taliban, who had allowed poppy cultivation, controlled the area. But farmers have turned to legitimate crops since Afghan government forces took over Fatehabad.
"Strawberries have been more profitable for us than poppies. Profits from strawberries planted on 1,755 sq. metres [0.175 hectare] of land were 300,000 AFN ($3,770) last year. This year, I have planted strawberries on 0.4 hectare, which will probably be three to four times more profitable than poppies," he said.
The Taliban used to take money from farmers under the pretense of ushr, but now they farm their land without any concern and are not forced to pay anyone, said Gul, adding that he pays each labourer 300 AFN ($3.77) a day.
"We collect up to 300kg of strawberries every day and pack them here, and we do this for about two months [while strawberries are in season]. With that money, we can take care of our families, who pray for our employer," said Mohammad Ilyas Mansoor, 28, one of Gul's labourers.
"In past years, we used to work in the poppy fields here in the Fatehabad area. Sometimes we would get headaches since poppy is intoxicating. But we had to work to earn a living," Mansoor added.
Alternative to poppies
"Strawberries are grown in Khogyani, Sherzad, Kama, Goshta and Khewa districts. These are high-value crops and will yield 150 tonnes this year," said Inamullah Sapai, director of the Nangarhar Department of Agriculture.
"We will organise 100 exhibitions this year to promote the cultivation of strawberries. We will also plant strawberries in greenhouses to compete with other markets, so that farmers can use them as a better alternative to poppies," he added.
Poppy cultivation has declined in Nangarhar. Three years ago, 13 districts grew poppies, but now, only six do so on an estimated 7,500 hectares of land, Sapai said.
In areas where farmers grew poppies before authorities eradicated them, the authorities help farmers by facilitating the cultivation of high quality crops, he said.
Since Nangarhar is more secure now, the provincial police have also stepped up efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation, 1st Lt. Farid Khan, a spokesman for the Nangarhar police, told Salaam Times.
"A lot of poppy used to be cultivated in Sherzad, Khogyani, and Hesarak in the past, but this year, our forces conducted operations there and cleared the districts of the Taliban," he said.
"We also carried out a poppy eradication campaign in the area, clearing hundreds of jeribs of land of poppies. The campaign is still going on."
"Our campaign will continue until poppy cultivation is eradicated," Khan added.