Afghanistan Pins Its Hopes on Pistachios

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

MAZAR-e-SHARIF, Afghanistan, February 7, 2005 (ENS) - In an attempt to restore the local economy while reviving an Afghan tradition, the government has begun a program to plant pistachio trees in several northern provinces, restoring a crop that has been decimated by years of war and drought.

The program began in late January, when 10,000 saplings were planted in the foothills around Maimana, the capital of Faryab province.

For centuries, pistachios have played an important role in Afghan life. Former governments would protect pistachio forests until the crop was ripe, usually in September. Officials would then announce a 20-day period when people could enter the forests and harvest the nuts.

Those harvests grew into major festivals known as Shole-e-Pista. Local residents would slaughter cows and sheep in the forests for huge picnic celebrations, where the harvested nuts would be presented to village elders and prayer services held.

Entire families would take part in the harvest, and they could keep whatever they collected and sell the surplus.

But over the past 20 years, local commanders often took control of the forests, forcing local residents to pick the crop - often before it was ripe – and then sell the nuts and keep the proceeds themselves.

There are still hundreds of thousand of acres of pistachio forest in the northern provinces, including more than 300,000 acres in Badghis and 200,000 more in Samangan.

Despite the destruction of more than 50 percent of its pistachio trees, Afghanistan still exports 1,300 metric tons of the nuts annually, valued at about US$130 million.

Afghan pistachios are smaller than those grown elsewhere and are dark green in color. They cost more than those produced in Iran, which accounts for nearly 50 percent of the world’s production.

Businessman Mohammad Harun, who buys pistachios in northern Afghanistan and sells them in Indian and Pakistani markets says, "The reason they are more expensive is because of the quality. Afghan pistachios are grown naturally, unlike other countries where chemicals are used to boost production."

Balkh once had more than 70,000 acres of pistachio trees but most have been destroyed by war, neglect and early harvesting. Thousands of trees were chopped down for fuel.

"Twenty years ago, when you were walking in Koh-e-Alburz [Balkh province], your attention would be drawn to the lush green forest on the side of the hill," said Mohammad Ayyub, a local villager.

"But now it is arid land with just a few dried shrubs. Even 10 years ago, most of the trees still survived, but in recent years drought has brought devastation.”

The government's pistachio project hopes to reverse that process, both boosting exports and improving the environment with more greenery.

Qara Baig, who took part in the first plantings, said, "During the war years, we paid no attention to our pistachio forests.

"Everyone was preoccupied with survival or with how to get out of the country. But now the situation is peaceful and people are thinking about the reconstruction of their country.

"I volunteered to take part in the project because woodlands will flourish again and the yields should be profitable for the people in the region," he said.

Sayed Ahmad Sayed, deputy governor of Faryab, said he believed “this project will bring tremendous benefits both to the countryside and to the people."

Zain-ul-Abidin, in charge of forests in Balkh province, said he hoped the project would also lead to a revival in the traditional festival. “After more than 20 years, it would be nice to have a big celebration,” he said. "I would hope all the commanders and the former fighters will come along to honor the pistachio."

But he cautioned against expecting major changes anytime soon, saying, "It takes 10 years for a tree to reach maturity.”

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}