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Afghan saffron pickers offer alternative to opium

Updated Apr 10, 2015 11:15am

Saffron cultivation needs lots of land and a lot of labour, but the world's most expensive spice might be an economic lifeline for Afghanistan with international financial support set to fall in the coming years.

In the western province of Herat, elderly women and young girls make their way slowly through a field of tiny saffron plants, carefully plucking the valuable flowers from the soil.

Workers picking saffron flowers in the Ghoriyan District of Herat.- AFP
Workers picking saffron flowers in the Ghoriyan District of Herat.- AFP
A worker poses for a photograph with a saffron flower. - AFP
A worker poses for a photograph with a saffron flower. - AFP
Workers cleaning and sorting saffron flowers at a cleaning centre in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
Workers cleaning and sorting saffron flowers at a cleaning centre in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
A labourer poses for a photograph holding saffron flowers. - AFP
A labourer poses for a photograph holding saffron flowers. - AFP
A worker carrying saffron flowers. - AFP
A worker carrying saffron flowers. - AFP

Each plant is placed in a plastic basket, which is weighed on electronic scales.

Labourers then prise apart the delicate lilac leaves, vivid red stigmas and pale yellow stamens -- a painstaking task that demands concentration and skill.

Saffron spice is prized around the world in cooking, in perfumes, as a fabric dye and as a treasured component of traditional medicine.

A few slithers of red saffron stigma also make a colourful and aromatic tea reputed to have near-magical healing qualities.

A worker uses a basket to carry saffron flowers in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
A worker uses a basket to carry saffron flowers in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
Workers carry picked saffron flowers to be delivered to a farmer in the Ghoriyan District of Herat.- AFP
Workers carry picked saffron flowers to be delivered to a farmer in the Ghoriyan District of Herat.- AFP
Afghan workers carry picked saffron flowers to be delivered to a farmer in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
Afghan workers carry picked saffron flowers to be delivered to a farmer in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
A worker picks saffron flowers in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
A worker picks saffron flowers in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
Workers clean and sort saffron flowers at a home in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
Workers clean and sort saffron flowers at a home in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP

As such, saffron should be the perfect crop to boost Afghanistan's fragile economy and provide an alternative to the poppy harvest that produces illegal opium and funds Taliban insurgents.

But it is not a simple solution: costs are high, a harsh winter can wipe out the crop, and neighbouring Iran dominates the market - producing about 90 percent of the world's saffron.

In Herat, about 6,000 people - 4,000 of them women - are employed in saffron farming on 800 acres (325 hectares) of land, with the product exported to India, Europe, the United States and China.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, all US-led efforts to eradicate poppy production have failed dramatically, with cultivation reaching a record high in 2014.

A worker cleans and sorts saffron flowers at a home in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
A worker cleans and sorts saffron flowers at a home in the Ghoriyan District of Herat. - AFP
A labourer dries saffron over a fire. - AFP
A labourer dries saffron over a fire. - AFP
Afghan Saffron Womenís Association Manager Sima Ghoriyani (R) dries saffron in an oven. - AFP
Afghan Saffron Womenís Association Manager Sima Ghoriyani (R) dries saffron in an oven. - AFP
Cleaned saffron is arranged on a platter. - AFP
Cleaned saffron is arranged on a platter. - AFP
A resident sits alongside a saffron drink. - AFP
A resident sits alongside a saffron drink. - AFP
Saffron seller arranges items at his shop. - AFP
Saffron seller arranges items at his shop. - AFP