Afghan Fruit Suppliers Fear for Lives and Livelihoods As India Trade Takes a Hit
As the Taliban take control, an American non-profit that works with Afghan farmers makes an appeal to India.
It was Sunday, the beginning of the Afghan work week. Zain (name changed on request) was at the Kabul office of an agriculture development non-profit organisation. He and his colleagues were focused on making the most of the harvest season as Afghan orchards are teeming with fruits during this time. That's when they heard that the Taliban were in Kabul.
Zain saw two trucks near his car.
The Afghan military soldiers took off their clothes and began to redress, this time in Afghan clothes and turbans. It was the Taliban. They brutally beat me up. I began to lose consciousness.Zain, via his colleague in California
There was mayhem on the streets. Some bystanders came to his rescue, as the attackers moved on, recalls Zain.
To escape from Taliban who reached his residence the next day, he fled to the airport wanting to leave for USA. “I presented my US green card. The Taliban officer at the airport immediately began beating me and shouted in Pashto – ‘son of a green card’, a derogatory remark reminiscent of the days when President George W Bush attacked Afghanistan.
The US and Turkish guards looked on. He hit me with the ‘qundagh’, which are the bullets strapped around the shoulder. Once I heard gunfire, I ran from there,” he said. To this day, Zain is in hiding, hoping to be flown to USA where he can be safe.
Zain's story is reflective of the lives of numerous Afghans who work at organisations aided by US and its allies. They are being hunted. Some of them like Zain had the option to live and work in US, but chose to be closer to their families in Afghanistan, trusting the US-supported redevelopment programs with their lives.
As a director at an American non-profit organisation, Zain has helped farmers all over Afghanistan to convert war-ravaged fields into profitable orchards. More than a million farmers have benefitted by adopting new farming, storing, packing, and transport techniques introduced in the last 15 years, increasing farm exports to over USD 1.4 billion in 2020.
In a country where 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture for survival, such non-profit groups have contributed significantly in raising farmers’ incomes. The farmers stand to face an immediate economic impact. The agricultural processes put in place are threatened, at a time when the fruit is ready to be picked and sold.
Abdul (name changed) a program officer at a US-aided non-profit said, “Afghan farmers need immediate help. Unfortunately, in the areas we work in, there is a lack of capacity and it is difficult for farmers to use right practices and tools to harvest their production on their own.”
This is the peak season to harvest pomegranates in Kandahar, apples in Ghazni, almonds in Wardak, grapes in the Shomali plains, saffron in Herat, and cherries in Badhakshan.
The Indian Connection
India is an important and large market for fresh and dry fruits exported from Afghanistan. Since Mughal times, Afghan goods have been brought to Delhi and Calcutta bazaars by Pashtun traders, also called kabuliwalas. Many a table await the arrival of the famed, much relished, ruby-red Kandahari anar every year. Fruit connoisseurs missed it during the Taliban reign in the 1990s, when poppy cultivation was on the rise. Disrupted by wars, bilateral trade was revived in 2013, as were the anar blossoms.
Heidi Kuhn, CEO of a US non-profit organisation Roots of Peace, based in California, shares that Afghanistan enjoys its historical image of being the fruit basket of Central and South Asia.
“It is the legacy of kabuliwalas to bring delicious fruits and dry fruits to India. We presented a concept in 2011, when Afghanistan was a very dangerous place. My husband Gary (President of Roots of Peace) suggested trade shows in Mumbai and Delhi. The Afghan farmers and traders had not seen the outside world. The buyers had not tasted such delicious fruit. I had the privilege to be in India at a ribbon cutting when they made Reliance and Big Bazaar deals,” shares Kuhn.
Roots of Peace
Roots of Peace works in many countries with an aim to bring prosperity to farmers by removing remnants of war – converting mine fields and war-torn lands into fruit orchards and vineyards. The group calls Afghanistan their ‘flagship country’ and are hoping to continue extending their support to Afghan farmers despite the tense situation.
Along with making intense efforts for the safety of her 360 Afghan employees in Kabul, Founder and CEO of Roots of Peace, Heidi Kuhn is concerned for the farmers.
“I am not so popular with the Taliban right now. This puts the farmers, the kabuliwalas, at a risk for their lives because they have been working for an American NGO run by a woman," she said.
But her efforts to support the farmers’ livelihoods – re-established during years of the US invasion – continue. ”Our trucks are near the Spin Boldak border; they are rolling right now. The harvest can't wait. Some fruits are on the trees and some on the road. They have to make it to the markets,” expressed a concerned Kuhn.
Trucks full of grapes, apples, pomegranates, apricots, raisins, figs, pine nuts, walnuts, medicinal herbs, and other dry fruits from Afghanistan reach India by air and some ‘via Pakistan through the Wagah border’. In 2020-21 alone, exports worth more than USD 500 million were recorded. This amount will be impacted as Afghanistan is a landlocked country and air route is the main medium of exports, which has been disrupted. Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO) Director General Ajay Sahai has warned, “The trade would reduce due to the growing uncertainty in Afghanistan.”
The avenues provided to the Afghan peasants in the last decade helped them expand their exports and revenue. But now the fruit growers fear for their lives and for their livelihoods because of their long association with US. Abdul, a program officer at a US-aided non-profit, however remains optimistic.
“We have been told by the elderly and influencers in the farming areas that we will be able to go in to help. Taliban hopefully will be committed and allow our team to help. So much conflict and uncertainty might impact economic gains. Let’s wait and see.”Abdul, program officer at a US-aided non-profit
A Request to India
With a firm belief in cultivating peace and prosperity through agriculture, Heidi Kuhn is now making an appeal to Indians on behalf of the wary kabuliwalas.
“When my Roots of Peace trucks arrive in India to the supermarkets for delivery, please fill them with tents, food, milk for the children, so that they can take them back to Kabul. There are hundreds and thousands of displaced people in the streets of Kabul, Afghans who have run away from their homes. There is neither food nor shelter for them. They are going to be dying on the streets of Kabul because of hunger.”
Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)
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