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
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
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
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)