Kabul (AsiaNews) Roses instead of poppies will blossom in Afghanistan, the world's leading producer of opium. More than a hundred farmers in south-eastern province Ningharhar have in fact decided to give up illegal poppy cultivation and grow roses instead. Rose oil, a key ingredient in perfume, could thus replace opium, this thanks to a project promoted by German NGO Agro Action and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This fall, some 40,000 roses from Bulgaria will be planted in a 10 hectare area. Another 90,000 will be next spring as part of the project. Total cost will be around US$ 100,000.
According to the UNDP, several international investors have already shown significant interest in the project. "This project aims to give Afghan farmers access to high added value international markets. Rose cultivation builds on Afghanistan's agricultural strengths, and presents a strong opportunity to fulfill a growing niche market," said Ercan Murat, UNDP's country director in Afghanistan.
A market study on the feasibility of rose oil production in Afghanistan, conducted by Agro Action and Kabul-based Altai Consulting, found that fragrance products present a potentially lucrative export. It showed that demand for rose oil was high in Europe and the US where buyers are trying to diversify supplies.
Afghanistan possesses several advantages. Roses are easily cultivated in the country and rose oil is easy to transport due to its low volume. Rose cultivation is also a local tradition: until 1970 it was produced in Kabul province.
According to Agro Action, the high market value for rose oil can increase farmers' livelihoods and possibly allow them in the long-term to substitute poppy cultivation.
In the meantime, Afghanistan remains the world's largest producer of opium poppy from which heroin is derived. Around 80-90 per cent of the heroin consumed in Europe comes from Afghan opium. Annual revenues from heroin sales are around US$ 30 billion, 2.5 of which stay in Afghanistan where they represent one third of the economy.
In a country where the average per capita income is US$ 186 and only 12 per cent of the population has any access to medical care, the narcotic employs about 2 million people who work in poppy fields making an average of US$ 7, twice the national average.
Drug trafficking is however, a source of instability and its proceeds often fund local warlords and terrorist groups. (MA)