GHANCHE: Cherry farmers in northern Pakistan whose takings withered during last year’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic lockdowns are hopeful of a trade revival this harvest season as virus restrictions, especially on travel, are lifted.
The picturesque mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region, with its mild to cold climate, is the country’s main producer of the fruit.
According to Ghulamullah Saqib, deputy director of Gilgit-Baltistan’s agriculture department, the region last year harvested 6,000 metric tons of cherries with the industry annually generating around 600 million Pakistani rupees ($3.85 million).
But a ban on tourism and transport services, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, disrupted supply chains, led to many workers in the sector losing their jobs, and resulted in a 50 percent cut in revenues for some farmers.
However, the region’s cherry growers are hopeful this year will be better.
Mohammed Hussain, a Nagar-based farmer, said: “Now there is no ban on tourism and transport, we are very hopeful this year that all of our products will reach the market without any difficulties.”
Hazif ur Rehman, project director of the Khashal Cherry Farm in Gilgit-Baltistan’s easternmost district of Ghanche, said farmers only managed to sell half of their produce during the last harvest May and July cycle.
“Before the pandemic, we exported 800 to 1,000 tons of cherries to Gulf countries, including the UAE and Kuwait. We were badly affected by the pandemic as we had to reduce the labor force due to a ban on tourism and transport services last year.
“But with the tourism sector reopening we hope to sell all the produce this year,” he added.
Another cherry farmer, Mir Wazir Mir, from the Ghizer district, said Pakistan’s anti-virus measures early last year, including a restriction on interstate travel, had affected businesses in the tourism and agricultural sectors, and rendered nearly 80 percent of Gilgit-Baltistan’s labor force redundant.
“Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I would sell more than 60 tons of cherries to several parts of the country, including Islamabad and Lahore, at 150 rupees per kilogram.
“Now, I sell them for 60 rupees per kilogram after demand dropped due to the pandemic. I was unable to sell even two or three tons in the market, with tons of cherries wasted,” he added.
However, he hoped business would return to “normal” this year, and regional agriculture officials said they were confident the cherry trade would thrive again, and that the government would support farmers in ramping up production and creating jobs.
Muhammad Iqbal, an officer in Gilgit-Baltistan’s agriculture department, told Arab News: “COVID-19 has not only affected cherry farmers but other sectors too, and we are well aware of farmers’ grievances.”
He noted several initiatives undertaken by the department to help farmers, such as providing free cherry trees and distributing 150,000 saplings under the national Ten Billion Tree Tsunami program launched by Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2018.
The five-year tree-planting initiative aims to counter extreme weather conditions in Pakistan that scientists link to climate change.
“We will leave no stone unturned to help cherry farmers this year and will do our level best to provide training and technical support,” Iqbal said.