Afghan harvest falls hostage to violence, extortion

By TheHindu on 06 Sep 2017 | read

Outside the Kabul fruit market, with its roughly 800 shops and stalls, a crowd of sellers and buyers is arriving for another day of activity. This time of year is the peak of the country’s fruit season, and this year’s harvest has been impressive.

Inside the market is an abundance of fruit: peaches in crates, apricots and grapes in plastic bags, barely ripe apples sold from the back of a small truck. Melons are plenty, here and in the market next door, aptly called the Melon Market. On any given day, the fruit market can have up to 4,000 visitors.

Taliban’s network

But as bountiful as the fruit is this season, the Taliban’s growing violence around the country, and extortion by militias loyal to the government, have taken a toll on farmers and traders.

“If you transport melons from Kunduz to Kabul, the shipment gets stopped and extorted up to 41 times,” said Siamuden Pasarly, a spokesman for the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce. Each checkpoint extorts two to three melons, he said, adding, “The extortion is not only fruit — they ask for money, too.”

Abdul Wahab, who grows melons in restive Baghlan province to sell in Kabul, said he had spent 86,000 afghanis (about $1,300) on farm expenses like seeds, fertilizer and labour, only to sell the melon crop for a total of $220. “In Baghlan, the formal government tax on a truck is 100 afghanis, but the militia commanders ask for 2,000,” Mr. Wahab said. He sighed, “It’s a football match, and we are kicked back and forth.” In recent years, the violence in Afghanistan has dipped and peaked with the spring and fall harvests — the prosperity of one and the desperation of the other each dangerous in its own way.

Drugs and fruits

In the spring, when the lucrative poppy crop is ready for lancing, in the south of the country in particular, the violence subsides as many Taliban foot soldiers drop their guns and pick up a blade to lance. (The insurgency feeds off the drug business; often the two are one and the same.)

But in the fall, when the fruit season is in full swing and the agricultural improvements of recent years bear results for poor farmers, the violence escalates.

Opium brings in large profits. But fruit rots. So while one crop is given more and more space to be processed and trafficked through the insecure border regions, the other finds no market.

Hoping to overcome the troubles at the Pakistani border, the Afghan government and India tried to open an “air corridor” to facilitate exports of Afghan fruit to India. But the project got off to a rough start because of logistical problems with the cargo planes, leaving tons of fruit rotting at the Kabul airport. The city’s fruit market remained the biggest hope for farmers and traders.

For years, Amrullah Jan has sold apples from the orchards in Maidan Wardak province, about 30 miles outside Kabul. But this year, fewer traders braved the violence and the Taliban checkpoints to go there to buy. So he took the fruit to them, on the back of his small, worn-out truck, its sides covered in rust.NYT