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Afghanistan: Relief Groups Criticize Antidrug Program

Afghan farmers grow poppies because they are more profitable than other crops and have greater resistance to poor weather Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made eradicating the illegal drug trade a major priority. Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of opium poppies, which are used to make heroin. A new U.S.-led antidrug effort will focus on eliminating poppy cultivation at the level of the individual farmer. But the emphasis of the plan is generating controversy. International relief organizations say the plan could hurt individual farmers and do little to prevent punish drug traders at middle and higher levels.

Prague, 1 Febraury 2005 (RFE/RL) -- More than 30 international and local organizations have banded together to criticize a U.S.-led antidrug effort that focuses mainly on eradicating opium-poppy cultivation.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the organizations praised the U.S. attention to the problem but said the plan risks destabilizing the country. They say it could impoverish farmers and turn millions of Afghans against their government.

The organizations include CARE, Mercy Corps, and Oxfam. They are urging instead that the United States focus its counternarcotics effort on creating an alternative livelihood for farmers. Paul Barker, the Afghan country director for
CARE, told RFE/RL: "We are not so much opposed to eradication as we are a disproportionate focus on eradication. We accept that there will be some eradication this year, but eradication -- if it is the primary mode of combating narcotics here -- is going to negatively impact the poorest people in the country and do very little to actually get at the core of the problem. The problem really has not been driven by the poor farmers in the fields. It's been driven more by the processors and merchants who sell it further up the chain."

Poppy cultivation has soared since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban. The illegal drug trade now accounts for as much as 60 percent of Afghanistan's economy. Last year the number of families involved in poppy cultivation was estimated at over 350,000.

Experts say Afghan farmers grow poppies because they are more profitable than other crops and have greater resistance to poor weather.

The UN says the drug trade -- and not the risk of a resurgent Taliban -- is now the main threat facing Afghanistan

Last month, Karzai announced the equivalent of a war on illegal drugs.

The United States has taken the lead toward this end, pledging some $780 million in 2005. But only a small portion of that money is earmarked for programs to help farmers cultivate legal crops -- and those efforts are centered on only a few provinces. Meanwhile, Barker said poppies are grown in all 34 Afghan provinces.
"Unless they have some viable alternative, it doesn't do much for the country to just make poor people get poorer."

"This new American initiative with alternative livelihood funding is targeted only at a few provinces. Whereas poppies [are] now grown in all 34 provinces in Afghanistan. We prefer to see a nationwide program to provide viable alternatives for all poor farmers in Afghanistan, and don't want to provide an incentive for people to grow poppies so that they can then benefit from an alternative livelihoods program," Barker said.

Aid organizations say if farmers are forced to give up their livelihoods immediately it could force them to sell their land or even members of their families to pay off debts.

Barker said in his opinion a better antidrug program would focus on prosecuting corrupt provincial officials and militia groups involved in the drug trade. "We would prefer to see a much stronger focus on interdiction at the mid-level and higher-level people -- getting at the opium-producing labs and at providing alternative livelihoods to the poor farmers," he said. "Unless they have some viable alternative, it doesn't do much for the country to just make poor people get poorer."

The relief organizations say that drug traffickers should be identified and funds should be devoted to build law enforcement capacity to arrest them and their political protectors.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.