Poppy Farmers Set to Defy Government

The Afghan government has admitted it has cleared just a third of the country’s illicit poppy fields and faces an uphill struggle to prevent a new crop being sown.

Only three provinces – Helmand in the south-west, Nangahar in the east and Badakhshan in the north-east – have complied with interim president Hamid Karzai’s decree banning poppy cultivation, which represents just 30 per cent of the total production of the crop.

Opium producers pay farmers around 2,000 US dollars for a hectare-worth of poppies. Now there is race against time to supply farmers throughout the country with high-yielding grain to plant instead.

Government advisers know that they face a serious challenge. “The most important thing to be done is to prevent the sowing of poppies, which is scheduled to start in a matter of weeks,” said Abdul Raziq, vice president of State High Commission for Drug Control.

“There is very little time to provide the farmers with genetically modified wheat to grow instead. If the donor countries help us with this seed we will be able to convince a large number of farmers to sow it.”

But many farmers are not prepared to wait, saying that unless they sow the poppy crops they will struggle to make a living.

Qurban Ali, a farmer in Bamyan, 150 km west of the capital Kabul, told IWPR, “The government has not provided any assistance and, as a result, we have to cultivate poppies. I don’t want to do it, but it’s the only way I can make any money this season.”

Some poppy growers say they are unhappy about cultivating wheat because it doesn’t generate sufficient profits. Ghulam Ali, who farms land in the Saighan district near Bamyan, revealed that Pakistani opium dealers have already paid him some money in advance. “The traders gave me 50,000 Pakistani rupees – 850 dollars – and I will be given the remaining money when I give them the opium. If I had grown wheat, I wouldn’t be able to make a quarter of that from the entire crop,” he said.

The United Kingdom has given Afghanistan 20 million dollars to help eradicate the opium harvest. Initially, the plan was to offer 250 dollars for every hectare given over to another crop – a figure since upped to 350 dollars after complaints from farmers.

Ashraf Ghani, president of the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority, AACA, and minister of finance, is in charge of handing out the cash to farmers. “So far 125,000 hectares of land, representing 30 per cent of the total, has been cleared from poppy cultivation and more than 20 million dollars have been distributed,” he told IWPR.

The situation was very different last year, when the United Nations Drug Control Program, UNDCP, was surprised to find that a Taleban decree ordering a one-third reduction in poppy cultivation had been strictly enforced.

The UNDCP estimated that in the year 2000, Afghan farmers produced 3,600 tons of opium – around 75 per cent of the world total – down from the previous year’s figure of around 4,500 tons.

Shoib Safi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, http://www.iwpr.net/.