RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Since the fall of the Taliban, Western governments and aid organizations have watched in horror as poppy production skyrocketed in Afghanistan. The Afghan heroin industry is by far the largest in the world.
For the last several years, a group of Afghan and foreign businesspeople have been trying to offer a solution of sorts, urging farmers to grow flowers for perfume instead of drugs. But, as NPR's Ivan Watson reports, it's been a frustrating and costly project.
IVAN WATSON: Four hundred years ago, a Mogul emperor built Nimla garden, a green oasis in the dry hills of eastern Afghanistan. Somehow, Nimla's towering pine trees and orchards survived the decades of conflict in Afghanistan. This is where a 23-year-old Afghan named Shafiq Azizi is hunting for fragrant flowers.
Mr. SHAFIQ AZIZI (Perfume Distiller, Afghanistan): It's making beautiful smell.
WATSON: He sniffs a blossom from a bitter orange tree.
And this has a very unique kind of smell…
Mr. AZIZI: Exactly.
WATSON: …that you could use in perfume.
Mr. AZIZI: In perfume. I mean, you can use it, you know, when you get stressed. You can use it a little bit here and breathe, and it's very good.
WATSON: Shafiq is a perfume distiller. When he's not picking flowers, he works in a hot, dusty parking lot in the city of Jalalabad.
(Soundbite of banging)
Here he darts between a network of steel pipes and drums, dumping fragrant ingredients like cedar wood into a giant metal vat. By boiling the ingredients, Shafiq extracts valuable oils, which can be sold for thousands of dollars a gallon on the international market.
Professor BARNETT RUBIN (Afghanistan Expert, New York University): It's really very similar in a way to the production of heroin.
WATSON: Barnett Rubin is an Afghanistan expert at New York University. He's also one of the founders of the company Gulestan, which employed Shafiq for the last three years.
Prof. RUBIN: What you do is you grow flowers, then you refine it using a relatively simple technology into something that has very high value per volume and then export it to the market - only it's completely legal.
WATSON: Rubin says he and his partners hoped to offer Afghan farmers an alternative to growing poppies. Instead, they've encountered daunting obstacles.
Prof. RUBIN: After my experience trying to start a legal taxpaying company in Afghanistan, I understand very well why people prefer to go into illegal businesses.
WATSON: Two years ago, Shafiq, the distiller, used $29,000 in U.S. aid money to plant thousands of roses and build a perfume-distilling machine for the villagers living near Nimla garden. But when Shafiq visited last week, he found the distillery untouched and the rose patch abandoned.
Mr. AZIZI: Look, it's like (unintelligible) - maybe like a jungle.
WATSON: Shafiq confronted a local farmer named Nuralam(ph) and asked him why the locals had left an entire harvest of rose flowers to wither and die?
NURALAM (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. AZIZI: He's telling me that it's not my fault. No one will say that it's my fault in this country. No one.
WATSON: Many Afghan farmers are reluctant to switch to a new cash crop because they're accustomed to being paid upfront to grow poppies for opium traders.
Barnett Rubin says corrupt and inefficient Afghan government bureaucracy also made some big problems for Gulestan.
Prof. RUBIN: We owed a tax of just $400. We kept trying to pay this tax, but every time we did, the officials in the local treasury department would ask us for bribes.
WATSON: The company faced a litany of other obstacles. At one point, government officials refused to allow Gulestan employees to operate their distillery for weeks, forcing them to miss a crucial flower harvest.
Gulestan's owners now say they plan to liquidate the company, leaving the distiller Shafiq alone in his workroom with some of his more unusual olfactory experiments.
Whoa, what is that?
Mr. AZIZI: This is mango leaf and chili.
WATSON: But there is still hope for Afghan perfume. A local entrepreneur named Abdullah Arsallah is determined to resurrect Gulestan as a new company that makes fragrances.
Mr. ABDULLAH ARSALLAH (Entrepreneur): Of course, it's very easy to get into the drug business, but that will not get us anywhere. It's a cycle that one has to break.
WATSON: Arsallah says he'll move Shafiq and his distillery to a nearby village, where this farmer named Haji Ibrahim says he's enthusiastic about growing flowers for perfume.
Mr. HAJI IBRAHIM (Farmer, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. ARSALLAH: He says that it's our hope that instead of supplying the world and people around here with poison that is poppy and other drugs, we would like to give them sweet fruits and vegetables and nice smells from here.
WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: At npr.org, you can watch a video chronicling this attempt to transform Afghanistan's drug economy.