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Afghanistan: Farmers Face Choice Of Poppies Or Poverty

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The UN says that Afghanistan produces the opium that provides most of the heroin used in Western Europe and much that goes to North America. The U.S. and Britain are providing money for the Afghan government's program to eradicate opium production. RFE/RL talked to farmers who grow opium poppies and found some may even be encouraged by the new regulations to plant poppies in order to get the reward for later destroying the crop.

Markhel Khosa, Afghanistan; 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan produces the world's largest share of the poppies that are first turned into opium then refined into heroin.

The United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) has been monitoring for several years the production of the poppies in Afghanistan. The organization's surveys are used by police forces to try to track and intercept the opium shipments but also provide the basis for the UN, governments, and other bodies to devise ways to persuade the poppy growers to halt cultivation.

The chief of the UNDCP's law enforcement section, former senior British police officer Brian Taylor, says most of the addictive drug that ruins lives and causes many deaths ends up in Europe, both West and increasingly East, and large amounts are sold in America.

"Certainly, the biggest market for Afghan heroin is Western Europe and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has a particularly serious heroin problem and it's estimated that probably in the region of 80 percent of the heroin on the streets in the United Kingdom originates here, in Afghanistan."

Since the UNDCP began its surveys in Afghanistan eight years ago, the highest quantity of opium was produced in 1999 - about 4,600 tons. Last year, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government banned poppy cultivation and the UNDCP estimated only 185 tons of opium were produced.

But Taylor says a survey in February indicates poppy farmers have planted enough crop to yield up to 2,700 tons of opium this year.

In January the Afghan interim government banned poppy cultivation. It is using tens of millions of dollars (no precise figure available officially) provided by Britain and the U.S., whose countries have the largest number of heroin addicts, in a one-time scheme to pay $1,750 per hectare for poppy harvests to farmers who would otherwise sell them to drug traders. The UNDCP estimates there will be 45,000 to 65,000 hectares of poppies harvested this year in Afghanistan.

Taylor says that opium poppy cultivation is on the rise because tens of thousands of refugees are returning to a country where the economy is devastated and opium provides a relatively easy way of making substantial profit. But severe drought in recent years means that normal crops are difficult to grow and long-term solutions have to be introduced.

"What the [Afghan] government are doing at the present time needs to be very long-term. It's a very serious demonstration of their intent to combat the cultivation of opium poppy but they also recognize the problems that villagers have. The drought has been devastating in many areas combined with all the years of war that they've had and the government have embarked on a series of initiatives identifying the most seriously affected areas, and often these are areas where they've had returnees, refugees returning to the country after many years of absence and where areas have been particularly badly affected because of the abuses by the Taliban. The government have prioritized a number of areas and considerable effort is being made to focus the work of the various UN bodies and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) into these areas to provide the wide-ranging, sustained assistance that is necessary."

Taylor says the UN is not just providing the seeds for alternative crops but is planning longer-term projects to furnish farmers with the infrastructure they need, such as replacing irrigation systems. He says other help needed includes rebuilding shattered roads and even providing schools for villages so young people are not locked into a cycle of ignorance and poverty.

"What is important in the longer term is to ensure that there are development opportunities for the farmers, for the opium poppy farmers. They need the alternative livelihoods, they need the opportunities to be able to feed themselves and their families and to be able to make a decent living in the future."

In many places in the south and east of Afghanistan, where the climate is warmer, fields of the white poppies that produce the fluid manufactured into opium, are ready for the manufacture of opium. Many farmers and the drug traders who rely on their crop are unhappy about the eradication program.

Earlier this month eight poppy farmers and one government official monitoring poppy production were killed during violent demonstrations against the eradication program.

In some places, further north like the village of Markhel Khosa in Wardak Province, around 60 kilometers northwest of the Afghan capital, Kabul, farmers have only recently sowed opium poppy seeds for the first time ever.

The area is what, in times when water is plentiful, is an idyllic, fertile valley surrounded by hills leading up to snow-capped mountain ranges. Farmer Arif Khan says that the area was extensively destroyed by Russian soldiers during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan and then by a decade of civil war.

Arif Khan says that during normal years there would still be snow on his fields now but in recent years lack of snow and rain have turned the river that runs through the village into a trickle and dried up streams. He says there is not enough water to nourish the apple trees, wheat, and potatoes that used to give them a healthy profit at market. Instead they have planted opium poppies which need far less water to survive.

"We know about the government program to stop poppy cultivation, but the main problem we have is the drought. Right now we use generators to pump out water and for one hour that costs us 100,000 Afghanis (around $4) and if we want water for 24 hours that 2,400,000 Afghanis, which is a great deal of money for us. And we cannot recover the money that we have spent when we get the harvest from whatever we cultivate here, for example wheat or potatoes. The areas you see here and a little further, all the apple trees have died. So we have to cultivate poppies, our economy is very weak and the government can't help us because it also has economic problems."

Arif Khan says that he and the other farmers in his and nearby villages who intend to plant 200 hectares of poppies by the end of this month, are aware of the damage and human tragedies the result of their efforts produces. But they say that those who buy the heroin in rich Western countries are not struggling to fend off starvation for themselves and their families.

"All Afghans are against the cultivation of poppies and we know that this is against Sharia (Koranic law) and against humanity, but the farmers of this region are very vulnerable and very needy people because we have been deprived of water, there's no water in the river and so that all the orchards have withered and the people are very poor and the money they had they have spent drilling wells and now people have no money to run the generators for the water pumps. There's no work for the people here and you can't find most of the inhabitants of this area are in Khost or other provinces of this country."

Arif Khan said that he was obliged to plant poppies because he, like others, had borrowed money to feed his family from narcotics traders who are demanding the loan back in the form of opium. But some of the farmers only decided to plant poppies in their fields after they found out about the government's cash rewards for eliminating the crop.

One man, who did not want to be named, showed a bag of poppy seeds that he had bought in Kabul and was going to plant this week.

He admitted that he and some of the farmers decided to sow the unfamiliar crop because they knew they would get a guaranteed price for it even if they did not cultivate it until harvesting point. Taylor, from the UNDCP, said that he did not think that cultivating poppies purely to sell them to the government for the cash reward will become widespread. He said the Afghan interim government has said the rewards are only available this year.

"This is a one-off payment to the opium farmers. [The Afghan government] has made it very clear that this is a one-off incentive or them to plough their poppy fields and it will not be repeated. I think that message will gradually get through to people, that there is no incentive in producing the opium poppy and that they have to change this culture that they've had for several years and that people who think that they can suddenly decide to take advantage of the offer of this one-off payment will be badly advised if they think they can proceed with this."

The UNDCP is providing training for the interim government's police and security services to deal with the drugs problem. But, as so much else in Afghanistan, curbing drugs production depends on bringing lasting peace and political stability to the country and starting an economic recovery that will convince farmers and businessmen that they can make a profit out of products that do not increase the misery of drug addiction elsewhere in the world.