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.
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)
BY Jill McGivering
BBC News, Lashkar Gah, Helmand
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Khalai Kohna High School in Lashkar Gah, the main town in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, is hailed as a success story.
It’s dusty and lacks power and drinking water and the children share books.
But it is open, giving several hours of education a day to more than 1,000 boys and, in the afternoons, more than 600 girls.
It is a rarity. The vast majority of children in Helmand cannot go to school.
Khalai Kohna managed to open earlier this year because Lashkar Gah is a bubble of relative security, even though it’s surrounded by the Taleban.
One of the school’s science teachers, Abdul Raziq, says the fight against the Taleban must also take place in the classroom.
“The current insecurity is because of the illiteracy in our country,” he told me.
“If the people were literate, they wouldn’t have this insurgency now. That’s why I’m trying to do what I can to educate the future generation, so they can serve their country, instead of destroying it.”
Development is seen as a key weapon in the battle to win hearts and minds.
The thinking is that evidence of functional local institutions – a thriving school or a busy clinic – will encourage people to support the Afghan government and turn against anti-government forces such as the Taleban.
I flew by military helicopter to the district of Garmsir with one of the province’s leaders, Deputy Governor Abdul Sattar.
He was launching a new wheat seed distribution programme, an attempt to persuade local farmers to plant wheat instead of poppies.
Several hundred farmers, mostly older men with long beards and all with traditional Afghan headwear, sat cross-legged in an open courtyard in the sun and listened as the deputy governor addressed them.
His speech was a rallying cry, an attempt to bolster belief in the government and the brighter future it promised.
He urged the farmers to be patient. Garmsir was very poor and wracked by decades of violence, he said.
The government would help it rebuild – but it must be a two-way process. The people must support the government in return, he added.
Mr Sattar also had a strong emphasis on self-help.
Instead of demanding security from the government, he said, people should make sure their children went to school to study, instead of joining the Taleban to fight.
And instead of complaining that there were no teachers in the schools, they should identify some people with education and send them forward to train as teachers.
Many of the farmers listening were broadly sympathetic to the government, but when I spoke to them privately afterwards, some expressed anger and frustration.
One elderly man said he had to keep growing poppies because he was poor and wheat simply did not give him enough income.
If they want us to stop growing poppies, he said, they need to give us much more help.
Another man complained that the government did not ask their views or listen to them.
“We need security,” he said. “Security is our main priority. It isn’t wheat or water we need most, it’s security. People here are dying every day in the fighting for no good reason.”
There is no doubt that the children now learning their lessons in school in Lashkar Gah represent a possible future for Helmand.
But it is also true that the military battle in Helmand is far from won.
And for development to be an effective weapon, it must be delivered quickly – while hope still lasts.
By Martin Vennard
Friday, 7 November 2008
The government in Afghanistan has banned begging on the country’s streets and called on the authorities to send beggars to care homes and orphanages.
Officials say beggars are vulnerable to crime and exploitation.
Correspondents say Afghans are sceptical about whether the government can really carry out the ban as there are so many beggars and much poverty.
Beggars are a common sight on the streets of the capital, Kabul, and other Afghan towns and cities.
Most of the beggars are women, children, the disabled or elderly and their numbers increase in the winter as food becomes scarcer and employment opportunities dry up.
Child beggars are considered particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation by drug smugglers.
The government says some beggars engage in violent and anti-social behaviour, which disgraces Afghans.
And it says not all those who beg have no other means of survival, while some make a good living from begging.
It has asked the Interior Ministry to arrest beggars and send them to orphanages or care homes run by the Red Crescent Society.
The United Nations says the true number of beggars is not known, but that Afghanistan is ranked as the fifth least developed country in the world.
Aid agencies say almost half the population live on less than the equivalent of $2 a day, while the World Food Programme is trying to feed about eight million Afghans.
Fri Nov 7, 6:51 am ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A U.S. coalition airstrike and clashes with the Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan earlier this week killed 37 civilians and 26 insurgents, according to an Afghan government report released Friday.
The report also accused the Taliban militants of seeking shelter near a wedding party in the Kandahar province’s Shah Wali Kot district shortly after ambushing a coalition patrol on Monday, according to the findings compiled by the governor of Kandahar province.
The report said that another 27 civilians were wounded in the strike. It added that the government has already paid $2,000 to families of each victim, and $100 to those who were wounded — a standard practice in these cases.
The majority of the civilians killed were woman and children, the report said.
After the strikes and the clashes, villager Abdul Jalil, a grape farmer whose niece was getting married, told an Associated Press reporter at the scene of the bombing that U.S. troops and Taliban fighters had been fighting about a half mile from his home.
Fighter aircraft destroyed his compound and killed 37 people, Jalil said than.
Following these deaths, President Hamid Karzai urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to help stop the killing of civilians in coalition operations, actions which undermine popular support for the Afghan government and the international mission.
On Thursday, another coalition airstrike killed seven civilians and 13 Taliban militants in the northwestern Badghis province, Afghan officials said.
Civilian casualties in operations by foreign troops have strained relations between Karzai’s government and its foreign backers. Despite U.S. and NATO pledges to take greater care in targeting, the incidents have continued.
U.S. and NATO commanders often blame Taliban fighters for using civilians as human shields, thus causing civilian casualties.
The U.S. military said Thursday that civilians “reportedly attempted to leave the area, but the insurgents forced them to remain.”
The statement did not say where the U.S. got that report from. It quoted Kandahar’s police chief as saying several civilians were injured while attempting to leave the area.
Separately, a clash between police and the Taliban in neighboring Zabul province on Friday, killed seven insurgents and wounded two policemen, said provincial deputy police chief Jalani Khan.
More than 5,300 people — mostly militants — have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to a tally compiled by The Associated Press based on figures provided by the Afghan government and international officials.
KABUL, 3 November 2008 (IRIN) – Tens of thousands of children – mostly in rural parts of the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan – have missed out on polio immunisation due to insecurity and threats to health workers, the Public Health Ministry (MoPH) has said.
“We could not immunise about 120,000 children due to insecurity and attacks on health workers,” Abdullah Fahim, spokesman of the MoPH, told IRIN in Kabul.
Several polio cases have been reported in the southern provinces since 2008, and at least 22 cases of polio have been confirmed in the south, central and east of Afghanistan over the past 10 months, according to the MoPH.
More than seven million children under five were immunised against poliovirus and over six million given supplementary vitamin A capsules during a three-day nationwide immunisation campaign which started on 18 October.
The massive polio and vitamin A drive was conducted by 52,357 health workers in all 34 provinces of the country and was supported by the UN Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization (WHO).
MoPH had raised hopes that a successful implementation of the immunisation exercise would rid the nation of the crippling disease.
The poliovirus has been eradicated all over the world except in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, according to the WHO.
The inability of vaccinators to access and immunise children in insecure areas could spread the poliovirus among under-five children, health officials warned.
“We will not eradicate polio if we continue to miss children,” said Mohammad Qasim, a health official in Helmand Province.
Taliban insurgents had previously given assurances they would not disrupt the immunisation campaign and would ensure safe passage for health workers in areas under their influence.
But gunmen believed to be associated with the insurgents reportedly attacked and then pillaged an immunisation campaign convoy in Uruzgan Province in October.
Health care providers were also threatened in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
No Taliban spokesperson was immediately available to comment on the alleged attacks and threats to health workers.
The relatively calm northern parts of the country have been considered polio-free: the virus has not been reported there in the past three years.
By Rose Hoban
Voice of America
Durham, North Carolina
04 November 2008
Countries experiencing conflict often are increasingly susceptible to the spread of infectious disease as their health systems become disrupted or even collapse. A prime example of this phenomenon is in Afghanistan – a country at war for the past seven years and experiencing frequent conflict over the past few decades. But as Rose Hoban reports, many nongovernmental organizations are working to curb the spread of infectious disease within Afghanistan and across its borders into Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan.
Fred Hartman works with one group, Management Sciences for Health, focusing on controlling six communicable diseases – HIV, tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, polio and avian influenza. He says, for example, avian influenza hit Afghanistan in 2006.
“We know that came in from the northwest areas of Pakistan,” Hartman says. “In 2007,Pakistan reported human deaths with human-to-human transmission, which heightens the concern in Afghanistan.”
One project Hartman worked on was with the Ministry of Health in Kabul. He helped them convene a regional conference to draft basic principles to curb the spread of disease. That included agreeing on border controls – and in the wake of flu outbreaks, Kabul and Islamabad implemented new procedures.
“For example, in 2006 when avian influenza broke out in Pakistan, the poultry farmers would quickly ship all of their chickens to Afghanistan, and of course it was bred in Afghanistan,” he says. “Both governments have worked together to seal the borders, knowing it’s not in anybody’s best interests to start shipping sick chickens around the region.”
The impetus behind the regional conference wasn’t limited to strictly medical matters. Delegates realized that containing disease and developing their economies were intertwined. So along with tighter border control, they also agreed on better disease surveillance.
Hartman says this kind of cooperation has led to fewer cases of avian influenza moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another positive result has been the reduction of the number of people with malaria on the Afghan-Tajik border.
However, Hartman says there is still much work to be done, especially when it comes to controlling the spread of polio. Despite a worldwide effort by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, the disease is still appearing in remote places in Afghanistan.
“We have to conclude that despite serious cross-border efforts of notification of any cases of acute polio, immunization at the border for all children under five who are passing back and forth, that we have been unable to control transmission of the disease in that area,” Hartman says.
He notes that the continuing violence in Afghanistan hampers efforts at controlling disease. In one tragic case, three Ministry of Health doctors who were vaccinating children in Kandahar province were assassinated earlier this year.
But Hartman says there’s also reason for hope. He reports that local authorities – even those in Taliban-controlled areas – recognize the need to control the spread of infectious disease.
Hartman presented a paper on his experiences and his findings in October at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in San Diego, California.
KABUL, 5 November 2008 (IRIN) – A resolution by the ministers’ council – chaired by Afghan President Hamid Karzai – has outlawed street begging and instructed the Interior Ministry to arrest beggars and send them to orphanages and care homes run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS).
“No person – man or woman – should be begging, and children and other persons must not be used for this purpose,” reads a statement issued by the president’s office on 3 November.
“To respect human dignity, ensure social order and in light of Islamic and domestic laws, some measures have been adopted to eradicate begging… which disgraces the Afghan people,” the statement said.
The top-level initiative tasks the interior and social affairs ministries with drawing up and implementing a comprehensive plan to end street begging.
The exact number of street beggars is unclear but the phenomenon is common in urban areas.
Most of the beggars on Kabul streets are children, women, disabled or the elderly. Officials say they are prone to crime and exploitation, and sometimes engage in violent and anti-social behaviour.
Minors who beg are considered particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and drugs smuggling, experts say.
“Not all those who beg on the streets are actually beggars,” Golam Gaws Bashiry, deputy labour and social affairs minister, told IRIN.
“We will first identify true beggars – those who have no other means of survival – and will send them to ‘Marastoons’ [care houses run by ARCS],” he said.
Bashiry said begging was a lucrative activity for some who are not really beggars. “We found up to US$1,000 on some of them [beggars] when we tried to collect them from the streets last year.”
The government will set up a commission to distinguish true beggars from false ones; the process will take several months, officials said.
Afghanistan is ranked by the UN Development Programme as the fifth least developed country in the world; almost half of its estimated 26.6 million people live on less than US$2 a day, according to aid agencies.
More than 40 percent of Afghans are facing food insecurity, and the UN World Food Programme is trying to feed about eight million of the most vulnerable.