Conflict & Justice

Pakistan's mangoes sweeten relations with US


A Pakistani fruit vendor sells mangoes in a fruit market in Islamabad on July 4, 2009.


Sajjad Qayyum

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In the end, it just might be Pakistan’s delicious mangoes that solves all the world’s problems.

At a time when Pakistan and the United States are at serious odds over just about everything, Pakistani officials have begun an unofficial campaign to try and sweeten the bitter ties by, of all things, using the country’s famous mangoes as a peace offering.

Pakistani politicians, worried about the souring relationship between the two allies in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden and continuing drone strikes on Pakistani soil, are shipping boxes of “Chaunsa,” Pakistan’s prized mango, to their counterparts in the United States.

Hussein Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said he had sent the mangoes to U.S. congressmen and senators to help ease the tension. Other politicians have quickly followed suit.

Using mangoes to defray bad relations is an old tradition in Pakistan. The country’s often-competing tribes have long used the succulent fruit to diffuse arguments and to signify a fresh start.

“This unconventional diplomacy shows that Pakistan, despite differences of opinion on various issues, particularly the future of Afghanistan and the presence of C.I.A. operatives on its ground, wants friendly relations with the United States,” said Shamim-ur-Rehman, a Karachi-based political analyst.

The delivery of mangoes, the first shipment of which landed at Chicago’s O’Hare International airport in July, came after the United States lifted a decades-long ban, in place because Pakistan’s mangoes didn’t meet U.S. standards of pest control and postharvest management. With improvements made in the industry, however, the floodgates have opened.

Pakistani mangos have a kind of mythical aura about them. They are sweeter than the Indian or Indonesian mangoes that are typically available in the United States and, as anyone who has had them will say, there is no alternative.

Mango fans in the United States for years would drive to Toronto in the hopes of buying the Chaunsa mangoes there. Some went so far as to try and smuggle them back over the border.

Other countries have recently lifted their bans on Chaunsa mangoes as well, including Japan. After 16 years, the Pakistani embassy in Japan held a mango party to celebrate the arrival of their precious, and much sought-after, fruit last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also a fan and helped spearhead, with the help of USAID, the removal of the ban. In a visit last summer, Clinton lavishly praised the mangoes before announcing that the ban would eventually be lifted. A year later, the first shipment arrived.

Pakistan is the sixth largest mango producing country in the world after India, China, Thailand, Indonesia and Mexico, producing 1.9 million tons annually.

But this so-called “mango diplomacy” is far more than just a symbolic gesture, Pakistanis say. Rehman said it could have far-reaching effects and could be the beginning of a different kind of relationship between the two countries — a shift from an aid-based relationship to a trade-based one.

“This is not a symbolic gesture. This is the start of trade-not-aid relations between the two allies,” he said.

Pakistan has long voiced its desire to forge stronger trade relations with the United States and rely less on its humanitarian aid.

“It (the lifting of the mango ban) will not only strengthen trade relations between the two countries, but will also pave the way for the exportation of other commodities, such as textiles,” Rehman said.

Already fraying ties between Pakistan and the United States touched bottom after the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s hideout inside Pakistan in May. The last few months have been characterized by a series of tit for tat responses and public denunciations from high-level officials on both sides.

Pakistan deported a number of C.I.A. officers and partially retook control of a base being used by the United States to launch its drones earlier this year. The U.S. then reacted by cutting $800 million in military aid. Most recently, Pakistan said it was going to limit the ability of U.S. ambassador, Cameron Munter, and other officials to travel freely around the country. But Pakistan appears to have backed down after the United States threatened to the same thing.

“At a time when the two sides are struggling to revive their traditional diplomatic ties, this [mango diplomacy] could be a good omen,” Rehman said.