KHULM DISTRICT, Balkh Province, Afghanistan - In a lush green valley wedged between jagged red cliffs, fierce-looking men worry over tender fruit. This is tradition in the surprisingly fertile land that springs from mountain-fed streams, transforming dusty, desert plains into an oasis of orchards for pomegranate, almonds, figs, persimmon, and other exotic fruits.
For centuries, people have marveled at the valley as they navigated Afghan trade routes. Today, the villagers of Mula Sultan occupy the land in the Khulm district of northern Balkh province, about an hour’s drive from Mazar-e-Sharifand a determined group of farmers are trying to resurrect its flagging orchards.
The farmers are acquiring modern orchard planting techniques and know-how designed to improve their fruit yield and family incomes, with the support of the National Horticulture and Livestock Project (NHLP) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, financed by the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). The NHLP’s objective is to assist producer households in adopting improved practices to increase horticulture productivity and overall production. To accomplish this, the project is supporting farmers in rehabilitating existing orchards and establishing new ones.
Since 2009, about 19,600 jeribs (3,920 hectares) of land in seven northern Afghan provinces have been transformed into fruit orchards, says NHLP coordinator Ahmad Fahim Jabri. In Balkh province, about 4,080 jeribs are now devoted to orchards.
This is a significant change in Balkh because just six years ago about 50 percent of the total land currently used for orchards was likely allotted to cultivate opium poppies or producing hashish, says Jabri.
The NHLP has slowly demonstrated that high-density planting in orchards results in fruit production worth five times an opium crop. He adds “As people see these orchards, they see the benefits and move away from opium. They can make a lot of money without the disturbances that come with opium now.”