Reclaiming agriculture in Swat

Out in the field
Farmers in Swat need a helping hand to revive their fields and plant new crops
By Tahir Ali

Farmers in Swat — known as the fruit and vegetable paradise of the country — say the potential of the area’s agriculture and its related sectors remain unutilised even after the areas have been cleared by the security forces.

The area is a natural hub of high quality walnut, honey, soybean cultivation, trout fish and seasonal and off-season fruits and vegetables. The government has not focused on the potential sectors the way they should have been.

Swat farmers have not benefited from the resources for lack of money, expertise and marketing linkages, including substandard packaging, absence of value addition and processing plants.

Ihsanullah Khan, a farmer and social activist from Swat, says agriculture in general and the horticulture sector in particular has been made hostage to high prices of agriculture inputs, lack of cold storages and processing facilities, transportation and marketing blues and the use of substandard pesticides and fertiliser that renders export impossible. “The smaller farmers find it difficult to meet their basic needs. They don’t get good returns on their crops. They take advance loans from commission agents and enter into contracts with them for the sale of their fruit earlier. Thus, they are compelled to sell their produce at pre-determined prices which are usually far below the market price at the harvesting seasons. The government needs to help them find new markets for their products by creating linkages and liaison between them and local and multinational companies.”

The Khan adds, “The government and various local and international NGOs have done a commendable work for agriculture uplift in the area. The Italian government has supported the local farmers. The Sarhad Rural Support Programme has formed many community organisations, trained farmers and established link-roads to facilitate transportation of their produce to markets. But I think while there were thousands of NGOs in the early relief and recovery phases, hardly a few are working these days.”

According to Tariq Khan, a farmer from Miandam Swat and the president of a local community organisation, Roshan Saba, agriculture in Swat has been hit by the poverty and illiteracy of local farmers and indifference of the government.

“The people could enormously benefit if the government and NGOs helped the locals plant walnut trees there, establish orchards, provide support and free or subsidised inputs for the potato, peas and red beans crops, construct link roads to far-off villages and improve the capacity of farmers by providing them modern training and help establish cold storages and regulate markets in the area,” he says, adding, “the local farmers need support for mechanised farming for cementing the Katcha water channel, and construction of small dams for harvesting rain water,” he says.

Tariq Khan says his organisation has planted pine trees on 500 acres with the help of watershed project. “We also planted Deodar trees at 60 acres, apple orchards at 20 acres and persimmon trees at 30 acres with the support of Italian funded and Early Recovery of Agriculture and Livelihood Project (ERALP).

With the support of Hujra project, Roshan Saba planted fruit plants in 100 aces. For paucity of funds, we cemented 20 per cent water channels in some but only 5-15 per cent in other areas. The IRC and ERALP also provided with inputs which increased potato yields manifold. In our village, before the intervention, potatoes worth Rs10mn were sold but following it potato worth Rs25mn was sold last year,” he says.

“We would like the NGOs, the government and foreign countries to help revive the agriculture sector to its good days and realise its full potential. We would welcome them. We also request the Italian government not to discontinue the ERALP programme as it has helped us a lot,” he adds.

Another farmer, Izzat Mand, was all praise for ERALP and wanted its continuation as it helped farmers in Swat to increase their incomes through various interventions in agriculture and livestock.

Farmers and residents in the cooler parts of Swat still go without wheat growing as the ordinary wheat seeds can’t mature there and research scientists have so far failed to develop any specific early-maturing and cold-resistant seed for the area.

Swat accounts for around 50 percent of the provincial walnut population but the potential of walnut in the area is far from being utilised for lack of official support, continuous deforestation of the existing trees, non-cultivation of new ones and some ailments.

Shah Abdar, a farmer, says walnut could be the greatest source of income. “There are around 5 big walnut trees in one canal of land. If we take the average land per family at 50 canals (around 6 acres) and the family grows walnut trees on it, it can become a millionaire within no time. Just leave the 300kg yield per tree, even if the per tree yield is just 50kg, it will earn the family around Rs2.5million at the current market rate. The tree usually grows on mountain ridges and thus won’t impact cereal crops,” he says.

He says there is also a vast potential for growing potato but there is a lack of potato-processing units, one that could produce potato chips.

“Large size and good taste and quality are the hallmarks of Swat’s potatoes. Average yield per hectare is 12 and 17 metric tons in KP and the country respectively but is around 20MT in Swat. Still, farmers avoid the crop for flawed marketing” he adds.

Before the 2010 floods, Swat produced approximately 60 tons of trout fish from its 22 farms, which was mostly consumed locally. Last July’s floods ravaged most of these hatcheries. However, Provincial Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Authority (PaRRSA), with assistance from a USAID project worth $1.2mn, is helping repair these hatcheries.

According to an official whitepaper published last year in June, besides ERALP being implemented by PaRRSA, the USAID is financing several projects worth billions of rupees to help revive and develop agriculture, restore trout fish farms, the honey sector, medicinal and aromatic plants and the agricultural inputs, livestock and poultry tools, etc.

Funding is apparently the main problem. According to the official white-paper, out of total $860mn reconstruction needs for post militancy needs, KP still has no commitments for over $526mn.

As per the white paper, out of the total $1065mn damages in floods, the agriculture and its related sectors received loss of $396mn. For post militancy floods, reconstruction needs requiring $218mn in agriculture sector, the government still requires $217mn as only Italian government had committed $10mn for the agriculture sector.

The USAID, UNDP and several countries like China and the UAE, are providing support in sectors like roads, education, health, housing, etc, worth billions of rupees, it is but lamentable that agriculture has not received the required attention.

A robust crop insurance system and a subsidised easy-credit scheme and financial support for the expansion of agricultural engineering networks in the area, promotion of off season vegetables through ‘tunnel farming’ and training and support for small household businesses are also needed.

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About Tahir Ali Khan
I am an academic, freelance columnist, writer and a social worker.

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