Wikileaks: An Unexpected Look at Licorice

U.S. Embassy Visits a Century Old Licorice Factory in Turkmenistan

By Conrad Richter

Remember Wikileaks and the release of a huge trove of State Department secret cables, more than 250,000 of them? That momentous episode, now receded from the world’s attention, provided us with an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at how the U.S. government thinks and acts in its dealings with the countries of the world. Embassy cables detailing secret meetings involving world leaders and top State Department officials revealed an explosive mix of frank exchanges and commentaries sent from 274 U.S. embassies around the world.

But not all of the work of the U.S. missions abroad concerns weighty issues such as nuclear proliferation, war prevention and anti-terrorist activity. Some of the cables released by Wikileaks reveal a more mundane side of a foreign diplomat’s existence: the gathering of economic information of potential interest to U.S. business.

One of the first cables released by Wikileaks was sent to the State Department in February 2010 by the embassy in Ashgabat, the capital of the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan. It was an account of a visit to a licorice processing factory by an officer from a section of the embassy known as the Political-Economic Office. According to the unnamed political officer – or “poloff” in the vernacular of the cables -- the licorice processing plant is part of an agro-industrial complex located in the country’s second largest city, Turkmenabat. The American firm, MacAndrews and Forbes, set the plant up in 1906, and the plant has been in continuous production ever since, even through the Soviet period. The original press installed during the Czarist era for crushing roots is still in use.

I was surprised to learn that all of the licorice roots are still collected from the wild despite attempts to cultivate the plant. Licorice grows on the banks of the nearby Amu Darya River and it is abundant enough to keep hundreds of collectors busy from March until first frost in October. Most of the plant’s 600 employees work in brigades digging all of the roots processed by the factory. None of the roots are obtained from individuals.

The factory produces unprocessed dried roots, as well as paste and powder extract. About 2,000 tons of extract are destined for an American company, Mafco Worldwide Corp., the self-proclaimed world leader in licorice products located in New Jersey. The plant also ships extract to customers in Japan, China, Western Europe and former Soviet countries. Extracts account for about 30% of the plant’s exports; the rest is dried roots.

During the Soviet era the plant was a regional hub for licorice, processing roots imported from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, which together with Turkmenistan form an arc of semi-arid steppes where licorice is endemic. But now the factory processes roots from Turkmenistan only.

The Chinese modernized the plant in 2008, installing the equipment needed to produce the powdered extract. The extraction process involves “steam and pressure applied to the harvested roots” as our “poloff” reports. The added value of the powdered extract, and a well-developed export demand, along with a ready supply of roots, bodes well for the future of the plant, according to commentary added at the bottom of the cable by Sylvia Reed Curran, the embassy’s Charge d’Affairs at the time.

It is interesting that the director of the factory declined to give our “poloff” a tour, giving the excuse that the factory was shut down for maintenance in preparation for the coming harvesting season. One wonders why a more suitable time to visit was not proposed by the director when the U.S. embassy called to arrange the visit. After all, it’s not every day that the U.S. embassy comes calling. Did the director think that our “poloff” was a spy? Apparently it is an open secret that the CIA puts its agents in the political-economic sections of U.S. embassies. I can’t help but think that this director, working in this backwater of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet socialist republic, was a little spooked by the interest shown by the Americans, and just maybe he was playing a little of “The Great Game” from the Cold War era.

While “The Great Game” the Americans most want to play now is to hunt down and catch those responsible for leaking the cables, it is great fun for the rest of us to hunt for fascinating herbal-related cables like this one.

Conrad Richter is President of Richters Herbs.

© 2012 Richters Herbs.

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