LONDON, June 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Despite the government's efforts to eradicate opium cultivation, Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province is heading for a bumper crop of opium poppies this year. Many farmers who had stopped growing poppies in respect for the ban decreed by President Hamid Karzai -- have come back to it.
They have done so in many cases because their economic situation has worsened and they often receive help, understanding, and protection from the ever-stronger Taliban. These are the findings of the latest report from the Senlis Council, which is headed by Emmanuel Reinert.
"The opium production will double and even more than double this year," Reinert said. "And already Helmand is one of the first cultivating provinces in Afghanistan with 25 percent of the production, and this part will [also] double."
Reinert explains that Helmand's opium poppy cultivation is expected to reach some 40,000 hectares this year, which is a 50 percent increase over last year. Such numbers suggest that the large-scale and sometimes aggressively pursued forced eradication programs have failed to achieve any lasting impact.
Reinert says that the increase in opium production undermines the efforts of the international community to achieve some stability, as many farmers don't believe the state is going to help them and they feel abandoned by the international community.
Mark Harper is a Tory member of the British Parliament and the shadow defense minister who is also a critic of current policies in Afghanistan.
"If the government wants to support the Afghan government's attempt to remove opium production, then it can't do that properly with the level of forces that we've got, and also with the amount of money that the Western allies are spending on alternative livelihoods for the farmers," Reinert said. "Opium production is a significant portion of the Afghan economy, and unless farmers have got something else that they can do to support their families they're going to be driven into the arms of warlords and the Taliban."
Taliban Helping Farmers
Harper stresses that the Taliban is using the eradication failures to win greater support. He points out that the British government now has soldiers in Helmand to help with reconstruction. Harper suggests that massive reconstruction and development be done first to gain the trust of the locals before eradication policies are begun.
Reinert says that the Senlis Council has some 20 highly mobile Afghan researchers in Helmand who contributed to its report. They have reported many incidences of officials leaving large opium producers alone while eradicating the crops of those farmers who could not afford to pay a bribe.
"With eradication you antagonize the local communities, and on top of that you add a very severe sense of injustice," he said. "Because, of course, once again, the ones who are eradicated are the poorest ones."
Reinert also stresses that opium is an indispensable part of life in Helmand and is totally entrenched in the economy of the province and Afghanistan at large.
Senlis: Legalize Poppy Cultivation
"It represents more than 50 percent of the Helmand economy," he added. "The rest is basically international aid. So, it is used as a currency; it is used as a way to gain access to credit; it is the only economic activity. So, I would say there are two currencies in southern Afghanistan. It's opium and Pakistan's rupee."
That is a main reason why the Senlis Council recommends that eradication policies be rejected in favor of controlled, licensed opium poppy growing for pharmaceutical production.
The Senlis Council says research carried out in Afghanistan shows that such a plan would not only be financially viable, but also workable on a local level. That is because the very traditional communities have strong social and ethical bonds that could be called upon, and the local jirgas (councils), shuras, and elders would readily cut their links with drug mafias.
"It would be a way for the central government to collaborate with the local communities, and not to alienate them or antagonize them, as is currently the case with the eradication policy," Reinert says. "So, not only [will you] develop sustainable economic activities for Afghanistan, but on top of that you will bring the rule of law and good governance in the provinces."
Reinert concludes that not every expert is convinced that the growing of poppies for pharmaceutical use is the best solution to Afghanistan's narcotics problem, but he argues that it is an idea that should be given serious consideration.