HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - Farmers in some parts of Afghanistan are trying to revive pistachio crops as an alternative to the opium poppy crops, but they are running into problems with Taliban taking a cut to supplement its income.
"We work hard here to cultivate pistachio and benefit well," said Ata Mohammad, a farmer in Herat province's Karrokh district. "This crop is better than others. This is a productive and Halal [legitimate or religiously legal] crop."
The pistachio, a hardy tree that is more like a bush, originated in Central Asia and the Middle East. While California's crop helps the United States rank second in global production behind Iran, the nuts from traditional producers in the region are generally more coveted by connoisseurs. Herat's crop is exported to the Gulf countries, India, Turkey and some European countries, including Germany.
The trees used to grow wild in Afghanistan and were harvested by local villagers, but fell victim to a combination of drought, war and neglect. Forests, which once covered 450,000 hectares, were cut in half, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Many trees were felled for firewood.
The country now ranks ninth in worldwide production with a small fraction of the crop. Processing plants and marketing are scarce.
The national government, along with aid agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development, have been trying to nurture a resurgence to help Afghans find a sustainable, healthy and lucrative food source and to undercut the poppy crops that yield an estimated 90 percent of the world's heroin.
They have helped plant hundreds of thousands of seedlings, and there are plans for construction of storage facilities.
But safeguarding the pistachios has been a challenge, with the government shifting its security priorities to urban areas and leaving much of the rural area to the Taliban, which is now estimated to hold at least 40 percent of the country.
Herat Chamber of Commerce officials say most of the province's pistachio trees are in insurgent-dominated areas. They estimate that the Taliban is making several million Afghanis — less than $100,000 from the nuts — but other estimates suggest the insurgents could be making millions of dollars a year.
The situation has led to premature harvesting that officials say has cut pistachio hectares in the province from 15,000 to 12,000, impacting the country's reputation for quality. Herat exported only 120 tons of pistachio nuts last year.
"Unfortunately, due to insecurity and lack of government authority, the pistachio harvest is done prematurely, and it damages the agriculture and economy of Afghanistan enormously," said Saad Khatabi, president of the Herat Chamber of Commerce.
Jilani Farhad, spokesperson for Herat's governor, admits that insecurity exists and insurgents destroy the pistachio trees.
"God willing, the security will be ensured to safeguard pistachio tree terrains, and insurgents will be prevented from getting access to the area," Farhad said.
Farmers elsewhere in the country have similar complaints. In Kunduz province, they say the Taliban go around the areas they control and collect one-tenth of the harvest by force. Farmers say if they pay, Taliban use the money to buy weapons, prolonging the conflict. If they don't pay, however, there is a risk they would be killed.
Taliban fighters appeared during the harvest collection and beat those farmers who refused to pay the one-tenth of their harvest. Others also were threatened with jail time and torture if they refused to pay.