By Ismail Sameem
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Farmers in Afghanistan's fertile south harvested a bumper crop of deep red pomegranates this year, but they say barriers to international trade in the landlocked country means much of their fruit may go to waste or be sold too cheaply.
The obstacles to fruit exporters, who accounted for more than a quarter of all Afghan exports in 2014, have posed a serious threat to one of the few functioning parts of Afghanistan's economy, struggling to emerge from decades of war.
Most of Afghanistan's pomegranates are exported to Pakistan, where prices are often low and where border crossings can be fickle.
Border problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which even saw exchanges of artillery fire earlier this year, have simmered for months, part of a longer running dispute over the frontier between the two neighbours that stretches decades.
Farmers in Afghanistan are pushing the government to help open access to new markets through Iran and other areas in the Middle East and southern Asia.
"The pomegranate harvest is much higher this year in Kandahar compared with past years, but we don't have access to good selling markets for this fruit," said farmer Zahir Jan. "We are demanding that the government helps find us a good foreign market in order to sell our product for a good price."
Haji Nasrullah Zahir, head of Kandahar's Chamber of Commerce, said there had been a 43 percent increase in pomegranate production in the province this year.
Government officials in Kabul acknowledge the lack of foreign markets, but say they are trying to find more international trading partners beyond Pakistan.
"The Afghan pomegranate is the best pomegranate in the region and attracts many countries that want to buy, but our problem is partnership," said Mir Zaman Popal, director of the government's export promotion department. "We are hoping to find partnerships very soon and the government is seriously working on this."
Afghanistan is often reliant on negotiating transportation agreements with its neighbours, but the government is exploring more air freight options, a more expensive but faster and potentially more politically possible solution, Popal said.
Crops like pomegranates and saffron have often been held up as possible alternatives to the lucrative but illegal poppy production that occurs across Afghanistan.
"I urge all Afghan farmers to stop poppy cultivation here," Jan said. "Instead they should promote pomegranate cultivation because poppy production is illegal and doesn't provide any benefit."
Billions of dollars in counter narcotics efforts have failed to reduce the drug trade in Afghanistan.
Opium production from poppies in Afghanistan increased to one of the highest levels on record, according to the United Nations, as eradication efforts all but ended amid continued focus on the ongoing insurgency. (Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)