Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming

Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
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Updated 21 March 2021

Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming

Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
  • Legion of growers are cultivating highly nutritious mushrooms in their homes as a source of livelihood

KABUL: It has been three years since Jamila Khoshbo began farming oyster mushrooms in a section of her tiny house in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of southeastern Kabul.

The 48-year-old Afghan mother-of-four said that she learned how to cultivate the fungi from the local radio and “decided to try it since it requires much less space, water and money to grow.”

“I have been in this business since 2019. All you need is a space of four by five meters, and clean wheat straw with chlorine. Keep the mushrooms in plastic bags vertically on posts in humid conditions for several weeks and they will be ready to eat or sell,” Khoshbo told Arab News.

Today, she earns nearly $200 a month — more than the salary of a government employee — by selling to grocers in the area.

Khoshbo is one of a growing number of landless women who are growing highly nutritious mushrooms in their kitchens or backyards rather than working in the male-dominated farming sector.

Since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, Afghan women have regained the right to education, to vote and to work outside their homes.

Still, it is not an easy place to be a woman, with forced marriages, domestic violence and maternal mortality prevalent across the country, particularly in rural areas.

However, access to public life has improved, especially in the capital Kabul, where most women work, and more than a quarter of the parliament is female.

Also, with drought and an acute water shortage affecting several areas of this mainly agricultural nation, growing mushrooms has offered a new lease of life to traditional farmers who prefer cultivating the fungi to other fruits and vegetables since it is cheap and “low maintenance.”

“It needs little water and is a very good, small-scale and clean business which requires two to three people to operate,” Rasool Rezaie, a 28-year-old resident of the Ghazni province in central Afghanistan, told Arab News.

Rezaie learned to grow mushrooms during a stay in Russia in 2012, when he had moved there to escape the insecurity and unemployment plaguing Afghanistan.

He returned to his homeland in 2016 and began selling computers. But “business was not good at all,” he said.

Two years ago, he set up a “mushroom farm” in Kabul.

“I was passing the Ministry of Agriculture one day and saw an official teaching a group of people how to grow mushrooms. Suddenly, I recalled my experience in Russia and set up this business,” Rezaie told Arab News.

His initial farm was small and produced 50 kg of mushrooms, but he has expanded the business to “bigger rooms” and now cultivates nearly 1,000 kg, earning $500 per month.

The cash flow is important for Rezaie, who is the family’s sole bread earner and takes care of his siblings following their parents’ death.

“I sell the mushrooms in the local market and teach new farmers, too,” he said, providing a textbook example of crowdsourced domestic farming by using limited resources.

“It’s easy to learn. I explain the process to interested customers, discuss what sort of tools they need and how to keep the buds at a certain temperature, etc. If someone else can benefit from growing mushrooms, why not?” he said.

Officials agree, with Mohammad Aman Aman, head of the agriculture ministry’s forestry department, telling Arab News that Afghanistan’s “conditions” were ideal for farming the fungi.

“Growing mushrooms is highly effective in this country because they do not need a lot of land or water. We have made proposals to the presidential palace to promote the growth of mushrooms,” he said.

Aman said that while the oyster variety is the most popular choice among farmers, plans are in place to cultivate truffles and morels — the more expensive assortments — as well.

“We export a small number of truffles produced here to India. So our push is to promote the idea of its growth because it is far more beneficial financially,” he said.

Afghans have for generations consumed wild mushrooms, which sprout in the mountainous north and northeastern regions of the country during spring.

The traditional condiment is added to soups and qorma — a meat-based dish infused with herbs, spices and dry fruits — but is increasingly sought after in restaurants selling pizzas.

In recent years, there has been a surge in mushroom consumption in urban and rural areas, according to traders.

“We buy it from farmers for less than $2 for a kilogram and sell it for double that sometimes. Business is good,” Rasool Dad, a hawker in Kabul, told Arab News.

Rezaie said that he hoped that Afghans’ newfound love for mushrooms could be a catalyst for change in other areas, too, such as altering the country’s image as the global producer of opium.

According to UN estimates, nearly 163,000 ha of land were used for poppy cultivation in 2019.

“If we can produce truffle and morels in large quantities, then farmers will gradually abandon the cultivation of poppy here because these two varieties are costly abroad,” he said.


Turkey conference in doubt amid international efforts to engage Taliban

Turkey conference in doubt amid international efforts to engage Taliban
Updated 3 min 40 sec ago

Turkey conference in doubt amid international efforts to engage Taliban

Turkey conference in doubt amid international efforts to engage Taliban
  • Group boycotting all peace talks until foreign troops exit Afghanistan

KABUL: The Taliban confirmed on Tuesday that officials from the US, UN, Qatar, and Turkey had recently held talks with the group to persuade them to take part in a crucial conference on the Afghan peace process.

Last week the Taliban said it would boycott the meeting in Turkey later this month — and future talks on the peace process — until all US-led foreign troops had withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Earlier this month US President Joe Biden delayed the deadline for a total troop withdrawal from May 1 to Sept. 11. 

The withdrawal was a key condition and basis for an historic agreement that was signed between President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.

“Delegates of the US, Turkey, Qatar and the UN have been holding meetings with our office in Qatar for settling the issue,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News on Tuesday. “It is not clear if these meetings, which are ongoing, will produce any result or not. But such meetings do not mean we are backing away from our stance.”

The Turkey meeting was proposed by Washington DC. weeks ahead of Biden’s move to delay the withdrawal process to prevent a total collapse of US-sponsored talks in Qatar, which began between the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators last September but have failed to make progress.

The meeting, which has already been delayed once, is seeking to facilitate a future political roadmap for Afghanistan, including the formation of an interim government that would also include the Taliban and end President Ashraf Ghani’s second term in office, which is set to expire in 2024.

Dr. Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban’s Qatar office, told Arab News that there was “no change” on the group’s part regarding its participation in the Turkey meeting.

“There is nothing new in this regard,” he said.

The Taliban accuses Washington D.C. of infringing the deal by extending the troops’ presence in Afghanistan. The deal was designed to end the longest conflict in US history which began with the Taliban’s removal from office in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

Observers said that Biden’s move led to a loss of the Taliban’s trust in Washington D.C., with several commenting that it had also put the Taliban political leaders in Qatar in a dilemma.

“It is unlikely that the group will attend Turkey’s meeting,” former Taliban commander Said Akbar Agha told Arab News. “The Taliban now do not and cannot trust America. After nearly two years of tough talks, you (the US) agree on a deal, and then you break one key part of it. The Taliban seem to have lost any trust in America after this.” 

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based analyst, said that some Taliban leaders had been holding meetings with the group’s field commanders “to seek their view” on the extension of foreign troops’ presence in the country and participation in the Turkey meeting.

“So far, these meetings have produced no result,” he told Arab News. “The Taliban political leaders can find a justification for the pull-out deadline and Turkey’s talks provided, possibly, the remaining 7,000 Taliban prisoners are freed and names of Taliban are removed from the blacklist. The Taliban waited for 20 years for America to go. They can wait for some more months too perhaps.”

Former government adviser Torek Farhadi doubted that any pressure would work on the Taliban unless they got everything they wanted immediately which, he said, was impossible.

“The US will do the conference without the Taliban,” he told Arab News. “After they leave, they have said it is up to all Afghans (to decide on their future and make peace).”

He said that once the foreign troops had left the US would no longer be offering any guarantees for Kabul except to finance the national forces, but not to keep Ghani in power.

“After the foreign troops’ departure, other political leaders will agree to a truce with the Taliban. Ghani will look odd wanting to defend his presidency. It is not sure at that point the local troops would fight to keep Ghani in the palace.”


India driving global virus surge with more than 10k cases per hour

India driving global virus surge with more than 10k cases per hour
Updated 7 min 6 sec ago

India driving global virus surge with more than 10k cases per hour

India driving global virus surge with more than 10k cases per hour
  • The unprecedented surge in cases has added extra pressure on frontline workers

NEW DELHI: India is registering more than 10,000 COVID-19 infections and 70 deaths per hour, according to official data, with the government describing the alarming surge in cases as “very difficult” to manage for the country of 1.39 billion people.

On Wednesday alone, India had recorded 10,798 cases and 73 deaths per hour on average, taking the overall total to 259,170 infections and 1,761 fatalities – a significant jump from the 72,330 infections and 459 deaths reported on April 1.

Some media reports said that India’s latest data accounts for one in three new cases worldwide.

“The situation is tough ... a very difficult situation for India,” Dr. Rajni Kant, spokesperson for the government’s premier medical research body, the Indian Council for Medical Research, told Arab News on Tuesday.

On Monday, the government announced a week-long lockdown in the capital, New Delhi, with several states following suit to address the health crisis, which has been amplified by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and medical supplies.

“We are all working to address the situation through the limited lockdown that New Delhi has introduced and the lockdowns and night curfews imposed by some of the state governments,” Kant said, adding: “Nobody can predict what is going to happen and when the situation is going to peak.”

The unprecedented surge in cases has added extra pressure on frontline workers, most of whom are working round the clock on coronavirus duty.

Some doctors said that they are not only putting their lives at risk, but “exposing family members to the virus by working long hours with infected patients.”

Dr. Shariva Randive, based in the financial capital Mumbai, has been working for more than 10 hours a day, four times a week, at a health facility for coronavirus patients.

She used to work for eight hours, and found the time to strike a healthy work-life balance.

“We have our masks on all the time. It’s tough. The second wave is more worrisome than the first, and the fear is more this time, among doctors,” Randive told Arab News on Tuesday.

“The situation is bleak in Mumbai, and even the close relatives of doctors will have difficulty getting beds at hospitals now,” she said, adding: “It’s the sense of social responsibility which keeps us going for long hours.”

The western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, is the worst affected state in India, and registered almost 60,000 coronavirus cases on Wednesday.

“Patients keep on coming, and you have no breathing space,” Randive said, adding that her biggest fear “is the risk I am putting my parents into by staying with them.”

Just like many states, Maharashtra is facing an acute shortage of oxygen supply and hospital beds, with medical workers forced to work with limited resources.

It presents an additional factor for stress, said Delhi-based doctor Nirmalaya Mohapatra, who added that compared to last year, “doctors dealing with the second wave of the outbreak are under a lot of duress.

“The patient overload is very high, resources are limited and the virus mutant spreads very fast. Health workers are working on automation,” Mohapatra, who works at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi, told Arab News.

Adding insult to injury, local media reported on Tuesday that the government had decided to terminate an insurance scheme for health workers who die while on COVID-19 duty, with the medical fraternity saying it was “disappointed” by the move.

Last year, the government announced the almost $69,000 insurance scheme per person, which the health ministry said “reached its conclusion.”

Dr. Jayesh Lele, general secretary of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), said: “It is surprising to see the attitude of the government.

“We oppose this move and will write to the government. At a time when the doctors are going out of their way to serve people and forget their comfort, such a decision discourages medical practitioners.

“Doctors need encouragement more than money. Such a decision is mental harassment.”

According to the IMA, about 747 doctors died last year while on COVID-19 duty, of which only 287 had received insurance money.

“The government does not give insurance money to doctors who work in private hospitals. This is absurd. All doctors died treating coronavirus patients,” Lele said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Roy K. George, president of the Trained Nurses Association of India, said that the decision was a matter of “worry.”

He added: “We are experiencing the second wave, and most health workers are exposed. Therefore we are requesting the government to extend the cover for one more year.”

George said that 62 nurses had died, with most of their families waiting for the government to release the funds.


Derek Chauvin found guilty of all charges in death of George Floyd

Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin in court. (Screenshot)
Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin in court. (Screenshot)
Updated 13 sec ago

Derek Chauvin found guilty of all charges in death of George Floyd

Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin in court. (Screenshot)

MINNEAPOLIS: Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, the explosive case that triggered worldwide protests, violence and a furious reexamination of racism and policing in the US

The jury reached its verdict Tuesday after deliberating about 10 hours over two days in a city on edge against another outbreak of unrest.

Floyd died last May after Chauvin, a white officer, pinned his knee on or close to the 46-year-old Black man’s neck for about 9-and-a-half minutes.


Third Taliban leader killed in Peshawar in past 4 months

Third Taliban leader killed in Peshawar in  past 4 months
Updated 15 min ago

Third Taliban leader killed in Peshawar in past 4 months

Third Taliban leader killed in Peshawar in  past 4 months
  • The slain Taliban commander oversaw military deployments in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province

ISLAMABAD: A senior Taliban leader, Mullah Nek Muhammad Rehbar, was killed in Peshawar on Monday in an attack by two unidentified gunmen riding a motorbike, a police official and two Taliban leaders told Arab News.

“A probe has been launched to determine the motive behind the incident,” the police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Arab News.

Three others accompanying Rehbar, 35, were also injured in the attack, according to the police official.

The slain Taliban commander oversaw military deployments in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Its governor, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, tweeted about the attack, which Daesh has claimed responsibility for.

Rehbar was scheduled to return to his native Afghanistan after he and other key commanders were summoned by top Taliban leaders to their respective areas in the war-torn country.

Rehbar’s brother, Maulvi Noor Muhammad, was also killed in Peshawar, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, during a shooting incident about 15 years ago.

Afghan analysts say the slain Taliban commander had fought against Daesh militants in Nangarhar, which could be the main reason behind the attack in Peshawar.

Zakir Jalali, a security analyst, said Taliban officials are easier to target when they live as refugees in other countries. Jalali told Arab News that Rehbar had resisted Daesh fighters in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar and the group decided to kill him because he was considered a “soft target” inside Pakistan.

The slain commander was the third Taliban leader to be killed in Peshawar during the past four months. Maulvi Abdul Hadi, the Taliban governor for Laghman, was assassinated in Peshawar in February. In January, another Taliban leader, Abdul Samad Mullah Toor, was killed near the city.

Several senior Taliban commanders, including the group’s chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, were also killed in US drone attacks in the past.

Unidentified gunmen shot dead Nasiruddin Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban deputy chief, near Islamabad in November 2013.

A former senior Taliban figure, Maulvi Abdul Raqeeb, who was known to be in favor of peace talks with the Hamid Karzai administration, was gunned down in Peshawar in February 2014.

Meanwhile, a former Taliban spokesman, Abdul Hai Mutmayeen, died of COVID-19 in Peshawar in January. Mutmayeen had served as the Taliban spokesperson since 1994 after Mullah Omar launched the movement in Kandahar.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed Mutmayeen’s death and conveyed the insurgent group’s condolences to his family.


Indian capital running out of medical oxygen as pandemic surges

Indian capital running out of medical oxygen as pandemic surges
Updated 20 April 2021

Indian capital running out of medical oxygen as pandemic surges

Indian capital running out of medical oxygen as pandemic surges
  • PM Modi speaks of virus 'storm' overwhelming country as new daily infections exceed 200,000 for six days running
  • A local hospital with over 500 COVID-19 patients on oxygen has enough supplies for only four hours, Delhi's health minister

NEW DELHI: Indian authorities said Delhi hospitals would start running out of medical oxygen by Wednesday as PM Narendra Modi said a coronavirus “storm” is overwhelming India’s health system.
Major government hospitals in the city of 20 million people had between eight and 24 hours’ worth of oxygen while some private ones had enough for just four to five hours, said Delhi’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia.
“If we don’t get enough supplies by tomorrow morning, it will be a disaster,” he said, calling for urgent help from the federal government.
Modi said the federal government was working with local authorities nationwide to ensure adequate supplies of hospital beds, oxygen and anti-viral drugs to combat a huge second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The situation was manageable until a few weeks ago. The second wave of infections has come like a storm,” he said in a televised address to the nation, urging citizens to stay indoors and not panic amid India’s worst health emergency in memory.
“The central and state governments as well as the private sector are together trying to ensure oxygen supplies to those in need. We are trying to increase oxygen production and supply across the country,” he said.
Modi faces criticism that his administration lowered its guard when coronavirus infections fell to a multi-month low in February and allowed religious festivals and political rallies that he himself addressed to go ahead.
India, the world’s second most populous country and currently the hardest hit by COVID-19, reported its worst daily death toll on Tuesday, with large parts of the country now under lockdown amid a fast-rising second surge of contagion.
The health ministry said 1,761 people had died in the past day, raising India’s toll to 180,530 — still well below the 567,538 reported in the United States, though experts believe India’s actual toll far exceeds the official count.
“While we are making all efforts to save lives, we are also trying to ensure minimal impact on livelihoods and economic activity,” Modi said, urging state governments to use lockdowns only as a last resort.
DELHI RUNNING OUT OF OXYGEN
One local hospital with more than 500 COVID-19 patients on oxygen has enough supplies for only four hours, Delhi’s health minister Satyendar Jain said late on Tuesday.
Tata Group, one of India’s biggest business conglomerates, said it was importing 24 cryogenic containers to transport liquid oxygen and help ease the shortage in the country.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Protection has said https://bit.ly/2Qg99IY all travel should be avoided to India, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson canceled a visit to New Delhi that had been scheduled for next week, and his government said it will add India to its travel “red list.”
Several major cities are already reporting far larger numbers of cremations and burials under coronavirus protocols than those in official COVID-19 death tolls, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, the media and a review of government data.
Delhi reported more than 28,000 fresh infections on Tuesday, the highest daily rise ever, with one in three people tested returning a positive result.
“The huge pressure on hospitals and the health system right now will mean that a good number who would have recovered, had they been able to access hospital services, may die,” said Gautam I. Menon, a professor at Ashoka University.
On Tuesday, the health ministry reported 259,170 new infections nationwide — a sixth day over 200,000 and getting closer to the peak of nearly 300,000 seen in the United States in January.
Total coronavirus cases in India are now at 15.32 million, second only to the United States, with epidemiologists saying many more infectious new variants of the virus were one of the main factors behind the latest surge in cases.