Poverty feeds Afghan drugs trade
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Afghanistan
Tuesday, 22 January 2008
The opium poppy seedlings are already sprouting in Helmand province and all the predictions point to another record-breaking crop this year.
Farmers have irrigated extra patches of land, reclaiming desert to grow the plants which produce the raw materials for heroin.
With the Taleban insurgency still raging, the British counter-narcotics team in Afghanistan is unable to make any impact on the poppy problem in the south.
The farmers are weeding the fields at the moment in Helmand. It is a family business, and they insist there is no alternative.
“I only have a small area of land and 10 people in my family,” one farmer says angrily.
“I can only grow enough wheat to last two months on this land, so the only way to feed them is growing poppies.”
It is very fertile land, but the farmers complain the cost of fuel to pump irrigation water and the lack of markets and infrastructure makes anything else untenable.
Another man had his poppy crop eradicated last year, but it will not stop him trying again.
“I lost my poppies, but those grown by the rich and the powerful aren’t touched. So why should I stop growing them?” he asks.
The security situation is the biggest factor, but the lack of law and order and corruption are major problems in Helmand.
There is an eradication force which spends months cutting down the crops, but the richer growers or landowners pay them bribes to stay away and so far little has been achieved.
“There’s a correlation between instability and increased production,” says David Belgrove, who heads the British counter-narcotics team in Afghanistan.
“To stop poppy production [requires] more than just law enforcement. It’s a complex thing of establishing the rule of law, building alternative livelihoods, building access to markets, education – and all of these things are very difficult to deliver in an unstable environment.”
But 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are categorised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as “poppy free” and they are hoping the lure of development money rewards will have helped even more governors achieve that status for their provinces this year.
One of these is Balkh up in the north where the Uzbek border meets Afghanistan.
Its capital, Mazar-e-Sharif is a bustling and largely secure city.
Much of this is down to Governor Atta, who has led a campaign against poppies and owes his success to good strong governance and maintaining law and order.
“Every achievement depends on good leadership and strong management,” he says.
“We had a clear plan, we were serious and had a team that was not corrupt.”
He has even produced a glossy brochure which he hands to visitors explaining his tactics for success, but he complains he has seen none of the development incentives promised.
That smuggling still goes on is not in doubt. It is a multi-million-dollar business and drugs come through Balkh north to Central Asia or west to Iran.
After meeting and drinking tea with a number of contacts in different homes outside Mazar, a bearded, cheerful drug dealer took us to a place where they displayed plastic bags of liquid opium.
He explained how the traffickers would come round to all the villages, buying what they had before taking it out of the country.
“Ordinary people like you and I can’t take drugs out of the country,” he explained.
“Only the foreigners and the big men with contacts can do it. They are stopped at police checkpoints, but they call the police chief, or a minister or the governor and they are allowed to pass.”
Forests of marijuana
The governor laughs off these suggestions as ridiculous: “It’s just propaganda against me. I have done a great deal to prevent smuggling, there is evidence.”
There is a lot of talk of corruption at the higher levels, but the dealers do say they will not grow poppies as they fear retribution.
And although they have lost a profitable crop, for now another alternative is bridging the gap.
In a mud compound a short walk away another man goes through the process of stripping the buds off giant cannabis stalks.
In the autumn vast forests of marijuana plants scatter the landscape.
It is something that has always been done here, but the price has gone up by a factor of four in just a year.
But unless help can be given to provide a viable and legal alternative, the opium poppies will be back as people struggle with poverty.