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Barren Fields Recover From Taliban

Many farmers are struggling to revive agriculture from the losses under the Taliban. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Many farmers are struggling to revive agriculture from the losses under the Taliban. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Dec 30 2013 (IPS) - Ahmed Nawaz, a 55-year-old farmer in northwestern Pakistan’s Swat valley, rues the day the Taliban arrived in his beautiful land, known for its rolling mountains, lush fields and blossoming orchards. “The earth became barren,” he says.

“Our agricultural income used to be enough for the entire extended family, but for two years after the advent of the Taliban in 2007, we couldn’t cultivate our lands,” Nawaz tells IPS.

Swat is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Taliban had a strong presence there for two years before being driven out of the area in a military operation in 2010. But it has taken its people a long time to get back a semblance of their old lives.

“With the eviction of the Taliban, we have resumed exporting fruits and vegetables to foreign countries as well as to national markets."

Nawaz says local farmers were dealt a severe blow as militancy made it nearly impossible to continue farming. “Our economic situation had deteriorated during the Taliban’s rule. But now we are back on track,” he says.

At least 65 percent of Swat’s one million population are dependent on agriculture.

According to a report by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Agricultural Department, Swat used to contribute 25 percent of Pakistan’s total fruit produce before 2007, but the figure dropped to 10 percent after the Taliban came.

Between 55 and 70 percent of the total fruit produced in Swat went to waste when the Taliban’s presence spelt an era of hostilities, artillery shelling, bomb blasts, curfews and blockades, it says. Farmers couldn’t continue their work in the fields and orchards.

Gul Shah, secretary of the Swat Farmers’ Association, says fine quality fruit from the area was exported to Middle Eastern and European countries. The province’s Malakand division, including Swat, produced peaches, pears, apples, plums, apricots, onions, maize, wheat and rice.

But militancy brought things to a halt. Gul Shah says during Taliban’s era they could not secure seeds, fertilisers or pesticides.

“With the eviction of the Taliban, we have resumed exporting fruits and vegetables to foreign countries as well as to national markets after a lull of two years. We produce top quality fruits, like apples, grapes, peaches and persimmon which do brisk business in local and international markets,” he says.

“Now our bad days are over. We are happy about the Taliban’s departure.”

Militants also destroyed orchards, multi-utility processing industries, cold storage and dry storage units. But these have been re-established and a transportation and marketing mechanism has been put in place.

Everyday Malakand division transports at least 2,000 trucks of fruit to other parts of the country now, he says.

According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan released in 2012, the country has suffered agricultural losses to the tune of 35 billion rupees (330 million dollars) in the last five years due to militancy.

While things are picking up in Swat, farmers in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are still suffering as the Taliban’s writ continues to run large there.

Jalandar Khan, a 45-year-old farmer in South Waziristan Agency, one of the seven tribal agencies in FATA, says he has 200 acres of fertile land on which he used to grow all kinds of crops before 2004, but militancy has hampered work in the fields.

Khan says farmers have become poorer. “There are at least 200 families who were quite well off as they had high earnings from their farms, but after the arrival of the Taliban, they have had little work.”

Abdul Ghafoor, an agricultural officer at the FATA Secretariat, says terrorism has severely affected orchards in South and North Waziristan that used to produce fine quality plums, apricots, pears, peaches and pomegranates.

Farming in Kurram, Khyber, Bajaur and Orakzai agencies – all in FATA – has also been badly hit by a decade of militancy.

Ghafoor says most fertile tracts in FATA have become dry due to lack of water because militants often disrupt power lines.

According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan published in 2012, agriculture accounted for 25.9 percent of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product in 1999-2000, but the figure dwindled to 21.3 percent in 2009-2010.

Prolonged terrorism has harmed the agricultural sector in FATA where small landowners had prospered in field and orchard produce, it says.

In 2000, about 35 percent households lived below the poverty line in FATA, but the figure reached 66 percent in 2011, the survey says.

Before the advent of militancy, agriculture was the mainstay of the population there, as 65 percent of people were dependent on it, the survey says. But deteriorating irrigation systems due to lack of maintenance have virtually put an end to the cultivation of cereal crops there.

Zaman Gul, a Bajaur-based farmer, says they used to grow wheat, vegetables and fruits and export them to local and international markets. People had prospered due to extensive cultivation on plains, riverbeds and mountains, but everything was in a shambles after the militancy, he says.

“Now we don’t have enough for own consumption, let alone for business,” Zaman Gul, 62, tells IPS.

“Agricultural activities also helped us breed cattle and ensured milk supply for our nutritional needs,” he says. “But after terrorism in FATA, food is not an easy proposition.”

 
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