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As Afghan Opium Blight Spreads, Farmers' Lives Wilt

Children work in a poppy field in Helmand Province, where a mysterious disease has hit particularly hard. The province is home to a fertile river valley roughly the size of Switzerland that produces nearly half of the country's opium.
Children work in a poppy field in Helmand Province, where a mysterious disease has hit particularly hard. The province is home to a fertile river valley roughly the size of Switzerland that produces nearly half of the country's opium.
By Mohammad Elyas Daee and Abubakar Siddique
LASHKAR GAH -- Aziz Ahmad is a deeply worried man. With two wives and seven children at home, the 30-year-old farmer depends entirely on his opium-poppy crop to make a living.

This year, it's proving to be an increasingly difficult task. First, falling water tables stunted his crop. Then a mysterious blight emerged to destroy most of what remained.

In a normal growing season, Ahmad's 4-hectare plot in the Washer district of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province yields 100 kilograms of opium -- enough to cover his debts and ensure his family's survival over the winter.

This year he managed to bring in a mere 25 kilograms, barely enough to keep food on the table and pay the laborers who harvest his crop and transform it into opium gum, the substance on which the lucrative global heroin trade depends.

Ahmad managed to bring in just a quarter of his usual crop.
Afghanistan produces nearly 90 percent of the world's illicit opium production, harvesting 6,900 tons of opium last year. That means steady income for farmers like Ahmad -- and for the Taliban, which come calling every year to collect tax from poppy growers.

Driving Farmers Out

Avoiding the Taliban and the dire consequences he would face for not paying up led Ahmad to leave in search of work in villages around Lashkar Gah, 70 kilometers away.

Speaking to RFE/RL in Helmand's dusty capital, Ahmad says that while the falling water tables are easy enough to explain -- there was less rain this year -- the disease that decimated his poppies remains a mystery.

"Poppies are a very delicate crop and are affected by everything. This disease hit the crop while water was in short supply. Some people say it was because of some sort of pesticide," Ahmad says.

"It first weakens a plant. And the next day the whole plant will just dry up. This obviously affected their yield. When one plant dries up, tomorrow another 10 will wither. Another day, and a whole field will wilt."

The mysterious disease has wreaked havoc on poppy production across the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan. But the problem has hit particularly hard in Helmand, home to a fertile river valley roughly the size of Switzerland that produces nearly half of the country's opium.

Mysterious Blight

While the livelihoods of poppy farmers are hit by the loss of opium yield, declining supplies are pushing opium prices higher. This is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in bonus profits for drug lords and the insurgents who have stored hundreds of tons of opium.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who heads the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan, says that "very rough, nonscientific" estimates suggest that around 30 percent of this years' opium production will be lost to the disease. The UNODC is conducting tests to determine the exact nature of the blight, which might be caused by an aphid, fungus, or virus.

But he suggests that perceptions among farmers that the disease is some kind of eradication strategy are "conspiracy theories," unless scientific diagnosis proves it.

Lemahieu says that the decrease in opium production is a "positive," but his office is very concerned about the potential impact the mysterious blight could have on traditional crops, such as apples and wheat, if it were to spread.

The main worry for now, however, is the increasing price of opium. "The prices for the wet opium -- the fresh opium -- has gone up 57 percent since 10 months ago," Lemahieu says. "And that, of course, is a worrying trend because if those prices [keep] on going up dramatically high later on the year when the cultivation is to start, more farmers might be enticed to get opium planted."

Taliban Counts Profits

Lemahieu suggests that it's too early to gauge how the disease will affect Taliban fortunes, because the exact impact of the disease on this year's yield has yet to be worked out. But early signs indicate that even a 57 percent increase in opium prices will help in maintaining their war chest, which is partially funded through protecting opium production and trafficking.

But a dramatic rise in opium prices will result in windfall profits for the insurgents. Farmers suggest that the amount of opium the Taliban insurgents collected last year was worth nearly $3 million in the local market. The insurgents are likely to pocket hundreds of millions of dollars because a price increase will multiply the value of their opium stockpile.

Ahmad, the poppy farmer in Helmand, agrees. He says that the Taliban in Washer continues to demand the same amount of opium they collected in Washer last year. He says the insurgents "will lose nothing because they didn't invest anything" in planting poppies and producing opium.

The impact on poppy growers, however, is dramatic -- with hundreds of poppy farming families looking for ways to sustain themselves without incurring the Taliban's wrath.

written by RFE/RL correspondent in Prague Abubakar Siddique; contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Aliyas Daee from Lashkar Gah
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Comments
     
by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix, AZ, U.S.A.
May 18, 2010 18:11
What a delightful convenience. Someone can isolate the blight mechanism, figure out how to mass produce and distribute it, then all the criminals will have to get real jobs.

by: Ivan from: Sofia
May 19, 2010 01:54
It is the vice-ridden West and its drug consumption that are fueling the opium production. So you see two evils battling each other - on one side are the uneducated Islamic poppy peasants who engage in criminal activity to support their huge families, and on the other side are the Western intelligentsia, lost in consumerism, eager to satisfy all its crooked desires. The former never read a book in their lives, whereas the latter burned their books in WW2, but they both resemble each other in their inability to tell right from wrong. Didn't Lincoln say that poligamy and slavery are the twin pillars of barbarism? Both the West and the Islamists are slaves to their passions, and they are poligamous too, because the Muslims openly have several wives, while the Westerners are openly promiscuous without even getting married. Therefore, according to your Yankee definition, you people are all barbaric.
In Response

by: Turgai Sangar
May 19, 2010 14:28
Ivan: I totally agree that the drug traffic from the Golden Crescent, the Andes and Mexico etc... exists because at the end of the line there is a huge demand from hedonistic and decadent cultures (maybe not 'the Westerners' in general but at least segments and groups among them). Well, at the end of teh day that's one of the outcomes of a cocktail of secularisation, consumerism and post-68 libertinism and hyper-individualism. It affects 'new Europe' too though.


by: Adnan from: ex-Sarajevo
May 19, 2010 13:39
And of course, CIA does not have anything to do with drug dealing neither In Colombia, nor Afganista, or Mexico, or ...
"...
After five years of the US occupation, Afghanistan's drug production had swollen to unprecedented proportions. In August 2007, the UN reported that the country's record opium crop covered almost 20,000 hectares, an area larger than all the coca fields in Latin America. From a modest 185 tonnes at the start of American intervention in 2001, Afghanistan now produced 8,200 tonnes of opium, a remarkable 53% of the country's GDP and 93% of global heroin supply.

In this way, Afghanistan became the world's first true "narco-state". If a cocaine traffic that provided just 3% of Colombia's GDP could bring in its wake endless violence and powerful cartels capable of corrupting that country's government, then we can only imagine the consequences of Afghanistan's dependence on opium for more than 50% of its entire economy.

At a drug conference in Kabul in March, the head of Russia's Federal Narcotics Service estimated the value of Afghanistan's current opium crop at $65 billion. Only $500 million of that vast sum goes to Afghanistan's farmers; $300 million goes to the Taliban guerrillas, and the $64 billion balance "to the drug mafia", leaving ample funds to corrupt the Karzai government in a nation whose total GDP is only $10 billion. ...

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/LD01Df02.html


by: Mr Haddji from: Hollywood
May 19, 2010 14:26
What a piece of journalistic incompetance. Written so the reader will feel sorry for the DRUG farmer and his kin?
Wake up, don't be stupid...The Taliban make him grow it for Russian drug tsars. They make the big $$$$, he gets F#@%ed by them. The money is then used to finance a war against Europeans and North Americans (remember 9-11 or July 7th 2005?).

by: Laly from: Afghanistan
May 20, 2010 06:44
There are thousands of other farmers in other parts of Afghanistan with less land and less natural resources who are not growing poppy and not depending on this vicious crop but they are alive and living their life with whatever they have. The problem is only with the farmers of poppy crops in Hilmand and Kandahar that if they dont cultivate the crop or if their crops get affected, they will suffer. This is totally misleading and an effort to support the drug production in Afghanistan, which falls in favour of drug mafia, corrupt government officials, Taliban, international actors of this game etc. This is a negative propaganda, which has been supporting all kind of evils in Afghanistan. If they cannot live without cultivating poppy, let them die.

by: kharan from: kharan
May 21, 2010 03:13
let see who get the real profit from it how ONE POOR COUNTRY BECOME NUCLEAR POWER AND THE OTHER ONE IS NEAR TO IT AND THIS ALL HAPPEN IN ONE REGION CAN EU AND NORTH AMERICA PUT A TAPE ON THAT MONEY?

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