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How turmoil in Afghanistan has impacted agriculture — a vital part of its livelihood

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The 20-year conflict in Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of the government have affected Afghans in all walks of life. Agriculture is the most important livelihood in the country by a very wide margin. And as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, after years of drought conditions and now political problems at the border with Pakistan, the news isn't good.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: I spoke with Kairullah, who works his land in Herat province in western Afghanistan, the center of the country's saffron production. He says it used to be that a kilo of saffron could fetch as much as a thousand dollars, but now the price is less than $1.

KAIRULLAH: (Through interpreter) This is a really low price, so farmers are disappointed because not only they can't profit, but they have to tolerate great losses.

KENYON: He says the only hope is an injection of international aid because the government has done nothing for either saffron cultivation or export.

KAIRULLAH: (Through interpreter) This year there has been very little saffron export from Afghanistan because the previous government collapsed. And unfortunately, the new one came to power and the international flights got banned. So saffron swelled in the hands of the farmers and nobody could sell their crops.

KENYON: Roughly 80% of the Afghan population relies directly or indirectly on agriculture. With farmers enduring the second drought in four years, the United Nations says some 7 million Afghans are suffering drought-related problems. Farmers say it's not that the previous government was an especially strong supporter of agriculture, but at least they had a few programs, which have not returned since the Taliban took over. Former deputy minister for Agriculture and Livestock Hamdullah Hamdard says they used to provide seeds and fertilizers and launch watershed management projects in some areas. But now, he says, that support has disappeared, and there were problems exporting farm produce due to closures at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

HAMDULLAH HAMDARD: Right now is the marketing season for most of the fruits and vegetables in Afghanistan, and we see so much problems in the media. Particularly in the border, some of the farmers' products are not allowed, which really has a very big impact on the farming communities and on the farmers' livelihood.

KENYON: He says international aid groups must find a way to return to Afghanistan, despite their concerns about the new government.

HAMDARD: So far, only the U.N. agencies are actively working in Afghanistan.

KENYON: He says Afghans want to see the other international aid programs from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank come back.

HAMDARD: So far, these programs are stopped. All staff members are at their homes.

KENYON: The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization says the drought-hit harvest in Afghanistan this year is likely to be 15% below average. For Kairullah, the saffron farmer, the bad news is all around him in the crops that no longer earn a living income and the people who are no longer there.

KAIRULLAH: (Through interpreter) And not only they haven't continued saffron cultivation, but already they've decided to destroy their already existing crops to farm other crops, or they have left Afghanistan due to extreme poverty and obviously deserted their farming lands.

KENYON: Another more controversial option would be to cultivate opium poppies. Former official Hamdullah Hamdard says it's not clear if the Taliban will try to ban that, as it did during its previous rule. But if hard times persist, more farmers, especially in remote areas, could return to growing the poppies, which require less water to cultivate.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.