Afghanistan returns to Berlin, smelling of roses

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After 30 years of almost continuous war, Afghans are back at Berlin's Green Week, the world's biggest trade fair for food and agriculture, in perhaps a small sign of a slow return to normality.

Back in the 1970s, Afghanistan was one of the world's top exporters of dried fruits and nuts, but three decades of unrest, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979 and continuing with the 2001 US-led invasion, put paid to this.

But now, Afghans are trying to claw back the lost market share, with a dozen stands at the 76th Green Week, showing off dried and fresh fruits, orange-yellow saffron, intense-blue lapis lazuli jewellery, and silk fabrics.

Alongside the pomegranates and raisins, another export hoping to attract the attention of the fair's hoped-for 400,000 visitors over the coming week are organic bright pink roses from the moutainous eastern region of Nangarhar.

Supported by German non-governmental organisation Welthungerhilfe, the project began in 2004 with rose seedlings from Bulgaria planted in areas with the "ideal" combination of bright days and cool nights.

The rose petals, picked first thing in the morning to capture maximum aroma, are used mostly to make rose oil, which fetches between 4,000 and 5,000 euros (5,400 and 6,750 dollars) per kilo.

But since a kilo of the oil requires 3,500-4,000 kilos of petals, the project now covers more than 100 hectares (250 acres) and supports 720 farmers and their families, corresponding to some 4,000 or 5,000 Afghans.

In total, 30 kilos of rose oil, which is distilled on site, were produced in 2010, with customers including WALA, the German company behind high-end Dr. Hauschka skin creams.

"Organic products are expensive, you know," Mohamed Akbar Mohmand, 58, the project's bearded Afghan manager, told AFP. "This is good for our farmers, they are earning quite nicely."

And he says that roses are far easier to grow than poppies, the export that Afghanistan is most infamous for, seen as providing billions of dollars in funding for the decade-old Taliban insurgency.

Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, with 85 percent of people living off the land, and the planet's biggest opium producer, the base for heroin -- accounting for more than 90 percent of supply.

"In two of the areas (of the project) poppies used to be grown ... The farmers are happy, and are telling others," Mohmand told AFP in fluent German.

"The farmers and the local communities are happy. So far we haven't really had any problems, neither big nor small, with the Taliban."

The project is small scale but Norbert Burger, 65, from Welthungerhilfe, says its importance should not be understated.

"Rose oil is a small niche, with global annual production 4,000 kilos, and we account for just 30 kilos," Burger said.

"Weapons don't necessarily create peace, and all these guns are just creating more war. Something fundamentally different has to happen.

"Perhaps these roses are one tiny little contribution."

© 2011 AFP

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