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Afghanistan: UN Says Taliban Poppy Ban Hits Farmers Hard (Part I)

  • Charles Recknagel

A new tour of Afghanistan's poppy-growing areas by UN officials has confirmed that there is almost no cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas this year. In the first part of a two-part interview, officials of the UN Drug Control Program in Vienna describe the impact of the ban upon Afghanistan's rural economy, which for years had centered around the opium drug trade and now is hard-hit by the prohibition. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Vienna, 24 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Officials at the UN Drug Control Program, or UNDCP, who recently toured Afghanistan say that the Taliban's ban on opium-poppy cultivation is in almost total effect in the areas the militia controls.

The officials, who accompanied a special tour of drug experts from UN-member countries to Afghanistan last month, say they saw no signs of opium-poppy cultivation in the fertile eastern and southern areas that last year produced 75 percent of the world's opium crop.

Instead, the fields -- which are now approaching harvest time -- are filled with struggling stems of wheat. They are struggling because there is insufficient water to grow them due to Afghanistan's continuing drought. Wheat requires substantially more irrigation than do poppies.

That means that the farmers in Afghanistan's most fertile provinces will be hard hit economically this year by the Taliban's order in July not to plant opium poppies. Many farmers had become economically dependent upon growing opium over the past years.

Mohammad Amirkhizi, a special adviser on West Asia to the UNDCP's general director, told RFE/RL that the ban has achieved the long-standing goal of the UN drug control agency to eradicate opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. The vast majority of the Afghan opium-poppy crop had been grown in Taliban-controlled areas.

He says that most of the farmers his team spoke with were not against the ban -- in principle.

But Amirkhizi says that at the same time, the suddenness of the ban -- implemented as a religious order with the threat of prison sentences for anyone who did not comply -- has dislocated the rural economy.

"The farmers [we talked to] were not against the decision not to cultivate opium. They were, let's say, dissatisfied with the effects on their lives. So, if one can mitigate the consequences and if they can live on licit trade -- and I don't mean very comfortably, but at least at the same level they used to, which is not much but is subsistence -- then perhaps on the farmers' side there would be no need to go back to cultivating."

One reason for the ban's severe economic impact is that in Afghanistan's war-torn economy, the only source for rural credit until now has been opium merchants. The merchants provided farmers with loans at the beginning of the planting season that assured them enough money for expenses until the next harvest. But no such credit exists for legal crops, such as wheat.

The effect of the ban is also severe because Afghanistan's devastated economy currently provides no means for getting legal crops to market -- although a highly efficient system existed for the opium trade. For most farmers, there will be no way to sell any wheat that they manage to grow despite the drought.

At the same time, the poppy cultivation ban has left thousands of migrants -- who used to help farmers harvest the sap from poppy bulbs -- with no work.

UN officials say that the economic dislocation due to the ban has caused some isolated incidences of resistance by farmers. Barbara Brueckmeyer, an Afghan project officer who took part in last month's tour, says the group found that anger with the ban was widespread in eastern Afghanistan, while people in southern areas were more compliant.

"We saw in some areas, especially in the east, that the people were extremely angry about the poppy ban. There was one district in Nangarhar province in the east where there was a demonstration of people who played their musical instruments and shaved their beards and refused to implement the ban."

She continues:

"It was one isolated incident, but it was within a wider area where people were extremely angry. We spoke to people of many districts in this province and people were very angry. I couldn't predict what will happen next planting season, but the mood of the people in this area was different than the mood of people in the southern areas, where they are more compliant with the ban."

Sandro Tucci, the UNDCP's spokesman, says that the ban on poppy growing is likely to affect some 1.2 million people -- out of the country's population of 26 million -- who are directly involved in the opium business. Those directly engaged in the business included farmers and traders. But Tucci says the economic impact on Afghanistan's economy as a whole will be limited.

"Some 1.8 to 2 percent of the agricultural land of Afghanistan was cultivated with opium. Even though these are very populated regions, you are still talking about a very small fraction of the population which was depending on the income from opium growing." Tucci says that opium-poppy cultivation earned Afghan farmers some $69 million a year.

The UNDCP spokesman says that the Taliban is unlikely to suffer from the opium-poppy ban because the militia is believed to have earned only some $20 million a year by taxing the harvest. Most of the Taliban's revenues come from other sources.

Ahmed Rashid, an Islamabad-based journalist for Hong Kong's "Far East Economic Review" and an expert on Afghanistan, has estimated that the Taliban has a war budget of some $100 million. Rashid says most of that comes from taxes on the illegal smuggling of consumer items into Pakistan using Afghanistan as a cover.

Even though opium-poppy cultivation now has ended in Taliban-controlled areas, opium poppies continue to grow in the some 10 percent of Afghanistan controlled by the northern alliance, a loose grouping of forces opposing the Taliban.

Peter Tejler, the head of an EU mission that recently visited northern alliance areas, reported yesterday that his group saw "a lot" of opium-poppy fields on its way to the border with Tajikistan.

The UNDCP is now undertaking an annual full-country survey of Afghanistan's poppy fields with results due to be issued in mid-August. Officials expect the annual survey to fully confirm the Taliban's eradication of poppy growing in its areas.