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Export woes may send Afghan farmers back to drugs

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By Jonathon Burch

KABUL, Nov 11 (Reuters) – A bumper fruit harvest in Afghanistan this year has led to a surplus for domestic markets and with difficulties in exporting the goods, growers could return to harvesting opium, experts and farmers say.

Afghanistan used to produce some of the region’s best fruits and nuts but insecurity led farmers to switch to opium, a crop that funds the Taliban insurgency, adding to insecurity and further boosting drug production.

While cultivation of opium, the raw ingredient for heroin, decreased this year, Afghanistan still produces some 90 percent of the world’s supply of the drug.

Encouraged by international aid groups, some farmers have switched from growing opium to fruit and other products in recent years, but with little financial benefit and export problems, many could revert to more lucrative illicit crops.

“Farmers will always go for products with the highest benefit, especially with all the post-harvest problems,” Mohammad Aqa, assistant representative for the U.N.’s food and agriculture organisation in Afghanistan (FAO), told Reuters.

But problems with processing, packaging and storing produce, along with poor access to international markets, means many farmers are not even able to cover their costs, said Aqa.

A fruit surplus is unlikely to meet the needs of millions of Afghans facing severe food shortages this winter as droughts in many areas of the country have hurt the staple wheat harvest.

“GOVERNMENT RESPONSIBLE”

Many farmers around the capital are feeling the strain and calling on the government to do more.

“If the government doesn’t find us an export market and we don’t benefit from our agricultural products and suffer financial harm like past years … then we will have to return to poppy farming,” said Safatullah Khan, a farmer on the outskirts of Kabul.

Due to the problems with exporting goods and the unregulated import of products already grown in Afghanistan, such as apples and grapes from China and Pakistan, farmers are forced to sell at very low prices, said Aqa.

A 7 kg (15 lb) bag of apples costs just $3 in any of the capital’s fruit markets.

“I agree with the farmers, they need more support. The government needs to at least limit these kind of imports … in order to make them (farmers) competitive in the international market,” said Aqa. “It’s not a good time to introduce a free market in Afghanistan at the moment.”

The government’s export agency (EPAA) says it is aware of the problem and is working on finding a solution.

“We know that Afghan fruit production reached high levels this year, especially apples. These high levels of production have created problems and worries in society,” said Rohullah Ahmadzai, spokesman for EPAA.

“I know the sharp increase in production within the market is worrying the farmers, but we will solve this issue soon,” he said. He added that despite problems in exporting, $21 million worth of fruit was exported from Kandahar province alone. (Editing by Valerie Lee)

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Written by afghandevnews

November 12, 2008 at 5:34 am

Posted in Agriculture, Drugs, Economy

Mint oil, melons: Afghan farm fairs spur business

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By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer
Oct 29, 2008
 
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Nadir Bahktar’s stall at a northern Afghanistan agriculture fair had the faint smell of Christmas.
 
Before him sat an array of tiny $2 bottles filled with pure mint oil, a pungent liquid that smelled like concentrated candy canes and was strong enough to bring tears to the eyes. The concoction was advertised as a cure for aching joints.
 
“No, you don’t drink it,” he scolded a customer with a wag of the finger before making a rubbing motion over his knees.
 
Bahktar and his mint oil joined honey producers, melon growers and carpet weavers on Wednesday at the seventh and final U.S.-funded agricultural fair of the year, outdoor forums to help farmers and exporters meet up and sign business deals.
 
Bahktar has attended several of the fairs in order to advertise his mint oil and mint-flavored drinking water. “Business is good but we’re trying to improve it even more,” he said at his fair booth Wednesday.
 
An agriculture fair in Kabul last year attracted 160,000 people. But this year the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm that sponsors the fairs, pulled back the size of the event. Still, 50,000 people showed up to look at the 200 booths. Some 60 overseas buyers attended.
 
The U.S. and Afghan governments are eager to encourage farmers to grow legal crops as opposed to opium. Afghanistan grows 90 percent of the world’s supply of the plant, which is the main ingredient in heroin.
 
That drug trade fuels an increasingly violent militancy in the country: U.N. officials say the Taliban derives $100 million a year from it.
 
Loren Stoddard, director of the alternative development and agriculture office for USAID, said the fairs also help farmers in the war-torn country who have missed out on years of farming advancements.
 
Farmers and buyers have signed more than $10 million worth of contracts during 14 fairs the last two years, he said. The U.S. has spent about $1 million hosting the events.
 
“In the United States we have the yellow pages. If you want to buy some irrigation equipment, you open up the Yellow Pages,” Stoddard said. “That doesn’t exist here. Ag fairs are a way for everyone to see who sells irrigation equipment.”
 
Buyers from regional markets, like India, attend the fairs in hopes of importing Afghanistan’s produce. The country grows gleaming red pomegranates and juicy grapes, but its road system makes getting produce to market quickly difficult, and it has few storage facilities.
 
USAID is helping teach farmers new techniques. James Kunder, the acting deputy assistant administrator for USAID who was visiting Afghanistan this week, said Wednesday that a farmer he spoke with at the fair told him his old melon exports to India suffered a 30 percent spoilage rate during transportation.
 
After USAID helped provide him with packaging for his produce, the farmer’s spoilage rate dropped to 5 percent.
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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November 1, 2008 at 3:45 am

Posted in Agriculture, Economy

Tough sell: Touring audacious Afghanistan

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Jacob Baynham
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, July 24, 2008

(07-24) 04:00 PDT Bamiyan, Afghanistan — Sanjeev Gupta thinks it’s about time war-torn Afghanistan had a tourism industry in a peaceful corner of the country.

Gupta, a regional program manager for the nongovernmental organization, the Aga Khan Foundation, says that even though some areas are too volatile to visit, Bamiyan in central Afghanistan is safe and has an abundance of cultural, historical and natural treasures to lure international travelers.

“Bamiyan has a lot of tourist potential,” Gupta said. “We need to correct the perception of Afghanistan. The whole country is not dangerous.”

The Aga Khan Foundation, based in Geneva, created the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project to develop tourist infrastructure, train guides, cooks and hoteliers, and raise awareness of the region’s natural attractions. It’s a $1 million, three-year program.

Tough sell

Gupta concedes the task of establishing a tourism industry is a daunting task even in a relatively safe province like Bamiyan.

Since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and three decades of war, few tourists have traveled to Afghanistan. The United States and many other Western governments have issued travel advisories strongly discouraging nonessential travel to Afghanistan. And there are no commercial flights. Tourists must travel the 150-mile, 10-hour journey from Kabul on a dirt road that winds high up into the snowcapped Koh-i-Baba mountains before dipping down into the verdant Bamiyan Valley. The alternative road is controlled by the Taliban, who were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

But Gupta sees a long-term plan. “It’s not that we’re starting the program today and tomorrow there are hordes of tourists coming,” he said. “But it builds a base.”

To be sure, Bamiyan is already a success story in the post-Taliban era.

Virtually free of opium poppies, Bamiyan’s fields are bursting with potato plants. Scores of schools have been built, with girls 45 percent of provincial students, up from almost zero in 2001 under the fundamentalist Taliban. In stark contrast, 590 schools have closed in southern Afghanistan and 300,000 students have been left without classrooms due to Taliban attacks, according to the Associated Press.

History of visitors

And Bamiyan does have tourist infrastructure. Ever since the days of the fabled Silk Road that linked Rome to China, the province has been a stop for international travelers from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to first lady Laura Bush. In June, the first lady met with women training at a police academy and toured the construction site of an orphanage.

Tea shop owners at the edge of one lake say that on Fridays, the Islamic weekend, the parking lot fills with dozens of cars – most belonging to picnicking Afghan families.

In past years, most tourists came to see two giant statues of Buddha, at 174 feet and 125 feet, which were built a century before the birth of Islam out of the red sandstone cliffs 1,500 years ago. At the time, Bamiyan was a thriving center of Buddhism.

In 2001, at the height of its power, the Taliban government used rockets and tanks to destroy the Buddhist landmarks, which they considered to be idols of infidels.

Now, Bamiyan wants its history back.

Push to rebuild

Gov. Habiba Sarabi – the only female governor in Afghanistan – says she hopes at least one of the Buddha statues will be rebuilt, a difficult project that several organizations have offered to fund, but that is still awaiting approval from the Ministry of Culture. In Kabul, opinion is divided on whether the restoration of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic sixth century history is an appropriate program.

Bamiyan also boasts Afghanistan’s first national park, a 220-square-mile zone around Band-i-Amir – six sapphire-blue lakes set amid barren sandstone badlands. Getting there, however, takes a three-hour drive in a 4×4 vehicle over a rocky road between rusting carcasses of Soviet tanks and toothy 10,000-foot-tall mountains that have not been entirely cleared of land mines. Sarabi hopes that one day a paved road will link Kabul to Band-i-Amir.

“Tourism can bring a lot of income and a lot of change to people’s lives,” she said.

But Abdul Razak, who was sitting in the empty restaurant of his 18-room Roof of Bamiyan Hotel, says tourism has a long way to go before becoming a reality. “Bamiyan (security) is OK, but outside of Bamiyan is bad. The most important thing for tourists is peace.”

On a recent Sunday, Pei-Yin Lew, a 22-year-old Australian medical student, enjoyed the calm of the Band-i-Amir lakes in the new national park.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Afghanistan was to see these lakes,” she said, standing above the string of brilliant blue lagoons. “It’s truly beautiful here.”

Afghanistan tourism

Afghanistan’s political instability has taken a toll on its nascent tourism industry.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there have been no reliable statistics, but industry officials agree that visitors have declined dramatically in recent months.

The bombing this month outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people, and a January attack on the capital’s only five-star hotel has cut business by 70 percent, according to André Mann, founder of the Great Game Travel Co. in Kabul, which offers customized adventure treks.

“Things can change rapidly,” Mann said. “We’ve had some setbacks. We’re a little discouraged, but we’re hoping for a better 2009.”

U.S. travel advisory

The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to any area of Afghanistan.

“No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other western nationals at any time.

“There is an on-going threat to kidnap and assassinate U.S. citizens and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) workers throughout the country.”

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July 24, 2008 at 5:07 am

Posted in Economy

Taleban’s ‘$100m opium takings’

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By Kate Clark
BBC News, Afghanistan
Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Taleban made an estimated $100m (£50m) in 2007 from Afghan farmers
growing poppy for the opium trade, the United Nations says.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said
the money was raised by a 10% tax on farmers in Taleban-controlled areas.

The UN estimates last year’s poppy harvest was worth $1bn (£500m).

Mr Costa said the Taleban made even more money from other activities related
to the opium trade.

“One is protection to laboratories and the other is that the insurgents offer
protection to cargo, moving opium across the border,” Mr Costa told the BBC’s
File on 4 programme.

The final figures for this year’s harvest have yet to be released but yield
and proceeds are likely to be down due to drought, infestation and a poppy ban
enforced in the north and east of Afghanistan.

This would lower revenue, “but not enormously”, Mr Costa said.

Stockpiles

The past few years have seen abundant yields from poppy farming, with Afghan
farmers cultivating more than the global demand.

“Last year Afghanistan produced about 8,000 tonnes of opium,” Mr Costa said.

“The world in the past few years has consumed about 4,000 tonnes in opium,
this leaves a surplus.

“It is stored somewhere and not with the farmers,” he added.

The stockpiles represent hundreds of millions of dollars and it is not known
whether they are possessed by traffickers, corrupt Afghan officials and
politicians or the Taleban.

British officials say that drugs money funds the Taleban’s military
operations.

“The closer we look at it, the closer we see the insurgents [are] to the
drugs trade,” said David Belgrove, head of counter narcotics at the British
embassy in Kabul.

“We can say that a lot of their arms and ammunition are being funded directly
by the drugs trade.”

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June 25, 2008 at 4:21 am

Posted in Drugs, Economy

Drugs undermine Afghanistan’s efforts to rebuild

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By Tan Ee Lyn
May 8, 2008

FAIZABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Jam Bigum, a drug addict in Afghanistan’s impoverished northern province of Badakhshan, feeds her three-month-old son opium three times a day to keep him quiet.

“The baby got addicted in my womb. He will die of crying if I don’t give him opium. When I give him opium he becomes quiet and sleeps,” she said. The infant had an empty gaze and appeared drowsy throughout the interview.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer and exporter but most people tend to forget that it is also a huge narcotics consumer. A 2005 survey estimated that there are some 920,000 drug users in a country of 26 million.

For a long time, people living in remote parts of Afghanistan have had a casual attitude towards opium, using it as a panacea for just about anything due to a lack of medicines. Like Bigum’s baby, they are fed opium so their mothers can work.

But such lifelong addiction exacts a tremendous strain, sapping people of their energy to work, slowly undermining their health as well as the general well-being of their family.

“Opium covers up the symptoms of tuberculosis, like cough and pain, and the condition worsens. This is a problem because the person is infectious,” said a doctor in Badakhshan who helps drug addicts. He asked to have his name withheld.

“Addicts do anything to feed their addiction, they even sell their property. They lose everything.”

For Naik Bakhat, a 35-year-old mother of four, her life and her destiny seem to revolve around her addiction.

“It helps relieve the pain, we are so poor,” said Bakhat, who sells wild herbs to feed her addiction. “We spend $200 a month on opium. We even sold our land to buy opium. Now we have nothing. Almost all our income is spent on opium.”

In recent years, the Afghan government has rolled out plans to help wean addicts off opium and eradicate poppy fields.

It is under pressure from the international community to stop poppy cultivation. Afghanistan is the source of most of the world’s supply of opium, from which heroin is derived.

TALIBAN TAKES A CUT

The bulk of Afghanistan’s poppy production comes from the south, an area where Taliban insurgents wield considerable influence and over which Kabul has only partial control. Security sources say the Taliban takes a 10 percent share of poppy yields.

Christine Oguz, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, says the opium trade in the south is flourishing due to a mix of powerful landowners, organized criminal networks, corrupt officials and a lack of law and order.

“They (the authorities) have to really focus on the laboratories because that is where you have the most value added. They are mainly in the border areas with Pakistan and some are mobile. It’s like a simple distillery. You can even have it on a truck,” she said.

The fight against drugs appears more successful in the north, in places such as Badakhshan, where anti-drug officers have been actively eradicating poppy fields for more than a year.

“More than 100 farmers have been jailed so far this year, they are locked up for a few days to a week. They are released only after they promise not to plant poppies again,” said an anti-drug expert, who asked for his name to be withheld.

Experts are now employing more sophisticated technology, such as satellite imaging, to search for poppy fields.

But the success at curbing opium cultivation in the north might be short-lived as farmers can easily return to planting poppies, which are up to 10 times more lucrative than other crops.

This might happen sooner rather than later due to a severe winter that killed off wheat crops and hurt farmers’ ability to provide for their families, Oguz said.

“People really need food in Badakhshan. It is a very food insecure place. If you can’t persuade the donor community to give more aid to Badakhshan, and I am talking of immediate short-term needs and long term development plans, they will definitely go back to opium cultivation.”

Although opium prices have come down because of over-production, Oguz said farmers could still grow and stockpile it as it can be kept for up to 20 years without going bad.

DRUG ABUSE IN CITIES

Drug abuse in the cities has shot up, fueled largely by the return of Afghan refugees many of whom were forcibly deported from neighboring Iran and Pakistan in recent years.

“They get a culture shock. They come back and they have no work. They lose their livelihood. Imagine the stress,” said Mohammad Raza of the Health Protection and Research Organization in Kabul.

Kabul’s population was half a million in 2001. It has since ballooned to some 4.2 million. Unemployment is at least 40 percent.

“There is very little knowledge of drug abuse. Drug dealers will go to them and say this is good; the only thing to relieve psychological pain is drugs,” Raza said, adding that heroin and tranquilizers were especially popular in the cities.

Increasing numbers of addicts are injecting rather than smoking opium, a habit NGOs say Afghan returnees brought back from abroad. The sharing of needles is causing health problems.

A 2005 survey of 464 injecting drug users (IDU) in Kabul found three percent were HIV positive, while 36.6 percent were hepatitis C carriers and six percent were hepatitis B carriers.

“There are concerns HIV will get into the general population as a lot of drug users have wives and children and there is unprotected sex,” Raza said.

NGOs are distributing clean needles and operating halfway houses to help addicts kick the habit and the government is trying to legalize methadone to help wean addicts off hard drugs.

However, everyone agrees that the road ahead can only get harder as more refugees return.

“We don’t have enough resources, people don’t realize that this is a national problem,” said Tariq Suliman of the Nejat Centre in Kabul, the country’s oldest drug rehabilitation centre.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)
Copyright © 2008 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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May 8, 2008 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Drugs, Economy

Afghans escape poverty via cheap U.S. labor

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Wednesday May 7, 2008

KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Said Mohammed spends eight hours a day six days a week cementing walls with his bare hands, earning just $3 a day. He could barely be happier.^
“This is a very good job, very good,” he says, beaming and eager to explain everything about it in his garbled, rapid-fire English apparently learnt from American TV shows.
“I come here from just nearby, spend eight hours, break for prayer, home at four. On Fridays I have day off. It’s very good. I support myself, seven brothers and two sisters,” he rattles off, slapping down dollops of cement as he talks.
Mohammed, 20, is one of several hundred Afghans employed at a U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan, doing everything from digging holes to carrying furniture, building new barracks, cleaning toilets and filling sandbags.
While content, he is also a little jealous of some of the others working nearby who earn $8-10 a day doing similar jobs. They are employed by KBR, a U.S. firm with vast reconstruction and supply contracts in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Mohammed, to get hired by KBR you have to know the man who finds the workers for the U.S. company. If you do not know him — a local from Khost — you get stuck on $3 an hour.
“Maybe soon I’ll get a new job with the Americans,” he says, looking over at the nearby work site, where 10-15 Afghans in traditional clothes with turbans on their heads — wearing dark sunglasses supplied by the Americans — are laboring in the heat under the watchful eye of a Western KBR contractor.
While the working conditions are grim — the hours are long, they are under constant watch sometimes by armed U.S. soldiers, and they have to march everywhere in single file with a “guard” behind — Mohammed and the others are in the lucky minority.
KEEP QUIET
In Khost, unemployment is estimated by local officials to be running at somewhere between 80 and 90 percent — it’s hard to tell exactly because no one registers as jobless and many people manage to find informal work from time to time.
In the past, the lack of jobs and the frustrations that brings for young men eager to earn a wage and eventually marry, has been exploited by the Taliban to win recruits. Now, when they see men working and suspect it is for the Americans, the Taliban are quick to threaten, intimidate or kill.
“I can’t tell anyone what I do,” says Saif, a translator on the base who asked that only part of his name be used.
“Just recently, one man who worked here had his head cut off by the Taliban,” he says, estimating that in the three years he has worked for the Americans, around four dozen Afghans working on U.S. bases near the city of Khost have been killed.
The laborers though are more than happy to take the risk for the sake of a small but regular wage. Most have extended families to support and are struggling because of rising food and energy costs.
In the past six months, the price of a 50 kg (110 lb) bag of rice in the Khost market has risen from 1,100 Afghanis (around $22) to 2,000 Afghanis, locals say. Wheat has risen from 1,500 for a 100 kg bag to 3,500-4,000. Diesel prices have doubled.
“It’s hard for people to survive,” says Saif, who supports 18 members of his family on earnings of around $1,200 a month.
“The high prices and the lack of work, they are both things that force people to join the Taliban,” he argues, believing that many people ally themselves with the militants not for any political reason but for criminal gain.
Those that do not have work and do not side with the Taliban tend to blame their problems on the government, which they see as corrupt and inefficient. Perhaps as a consequence, local governors are keen for the Americans to launch more reconstruction projects — like new roads — to provide jobs.
“The expectations from the people are very high,” says Abdul Jabbar Naeemi, the governor of Maidan Wardak, a province near Kabul. “What I want are more development projects so that we can give the people some jobs. That’s what they want.”
(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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May 7, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Economy, Poverty

Solving Afghanistan’s poppy problem

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The drug war yields the wrong kinds of casualties
DOUG SAUNDERS
>From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
May 3, 2008 at 12:05 AM EDT
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The pilot of the British army helicopter was taking me on an exceedingly fast, wildly pitching, zigzag trajectory across the sun-baked fields of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. Even at 20 metres above the ground, the pungent aroma was impossible to ignore, a cloying tang resembling a huge pot of badly wilted geraniums.
The smell was being generated by the hundreds and hundreds of people in the patchwork fields below me, a dozen or so in each tiny half-hectare field. They were leaning over the pink, white, yellow and red flowers of the endless poppy plants, painstakingly slashing their bulbs with knives, waiting an hour as the thick syrup dripped out, scraping the dried syrup off, and repeating the task, day after day.
I had found myself in the midst of the largest opium harvest in the history of Afghanistan, possibly the largest in the history of the world. Some of it would be exported directly through Iran and Pakistan to the globe’s drug dealers, some of it processed into heroin in laboratories located right beside these fields. American officials told me that between 20 and 40 per cent of the Taliban’s financing comes from these opiate exports.
Last year, Afghanistan produced more than 92 per cent of the world’s opium and heroin, a record crop. This year, experts say it will produce 40 per cent more than the world demand — which means that huge quantities will be stockpiled somewhere. As we passed over the harvest, the helicopter’s side gunner pointed out the various drug-processing activities below me. But he didn’t fire a shot or do anything to disrupt the harvest.
There are many people who wish he would. Presidential candidate John McCain has made a campaign promise to order aerial-herbicide spraying of the entire poppy crop. General Dan McNeill, the American who heads the North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition fighting in Afghanistan, told me that he personally wants this to happen, too, but he respects the Afghan government’s refusal to allow it. Instead, he pushes U.S.-controlled provinces to practise aggressive eradication, taking out the fields one by one with Western or Afghan soldiers.
Later in the week, I visited Nangarhar, one of the U.S.-controlled provinces that has all but eliminated its poppy crop. It’s being held up as a model province, and Canadian commanders are being pressured by their American counterparts to adopt their tough poppy-ending strategy.
I attended a press briefing by Colonel Abdullah Talwar of the Afghan National Police, whom the Americans have placed in charge of stopping the poppy harvest. Midway through, he offered a little anecdote: “Last week, I saw a man sitting next to his poppy crop and crying,” he said. “He told me that he’d been paid in advance for his poppy, and how can he possibly pay it back now that it’s been eradicated? He told me, ‘I have no choice, but I have a 14-year-old daughter who I have to give to a smuggler as payment.’ “
Mr. Talwar then continued talking of quotas and goals. Finally, someone stopped him and asked what had happened to the poor farmer and his daughter. He shrugged: No idea. Like countless other failed farmers, the guy presumably had given up his daughter for chattel slavery or prostitution.
“I did my job, I fulfilled my duties and responsibilities,” the big, bearded cop explained. Those duties involved only eliminating the poppy crop. “There’s no place for growing poppy in our province,” he said. “It is my job to stop it.”
But killing a poor farmer’s crop can have nasty consequences. In Nangarhar, insurgent attacks have increased sharply despite a doubling in the number of U.S. soldiers. Some people blame the drug strategy, noting that it seems to be driving desperate people into the hands of the enemy.
The problem with simply killing the poppy crop is that the farmers themselves want nothing more than to be growing something else. But it’s virtually impossible.
“Farmers made more money growing improved wheat and onions last year than they did growing opium,” said a senior official with intimate knowledge of the poppy economy. Like crack dealers who are forced to live with their mothers, poppy farmers soon discover that this supposedly lucrative crop doesn’t leave them with much money.
First, they must buy poppy seeds, usually from a trafficker. Then they have to promise 10 per cent to the village landlord (this is, at best, a feudal system), and 5 per cent to the arbab, a local tribal official who provides irrigation, and then a 10-per-cent tax known as an usha, paid to whoever holds power in the region — a government-appointed warlord, or, more frequently these days, the Taliban. Then they must pay for the lancing of the flowers and gathering of the opium, typically at a princely $20 a day. Not much is left.
Most of these costs apply only to poppy crops. So why don’t farmers grow wheat and onions? First, because their fields are unsustainably tiny, and subsistence-level farming doesn’t leave any money for moving into new crops. You’re stuck with what you’re given, and if the Taliban are doing the giving, then it’s opium.
But more important is the lack of any market for non-opium crops. Farmers need to get their crops to market. If the roads are impassable and dangerous — or if warlords or Taliban are charging you $50 to drive down them without being killed — then suddenly the cost of transporting your grain to market is unaffordably high. Poppy may not pay, but it does have a buyer.
Neither the American spray-it-now approach nor the idealist switch-to-wheat-and-watermelons approach will work now — nor will the Senlis Council’s idea of switching to a pharmaceutical opium crop. The farmers first need to be connected to new buyers, without heavy guys with guns in between.
That’s why these British soldiers are ignoring the poppy harvest beneath them this month. It makes sense to wipe out some fields — those belonging to warlords and corrupt government officials.
But if a spiral of violence and misery is to be avoided, it’s better to trust the economics: Get the warlords out of power and open the roads, and poppy fields will disappear on their own.
Opium isn’t a root problem; it’s a tragic side effect.
© Copyright 2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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May 3, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Drugs, Economy