By Mina Habib
Farmers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province say they are determined to grow as much opium poppy as they can this season, if necessary planting the crop in secluded semi-desert areas if their own fields are being watched by the authorities.
Some blame official efforts to encourage them to switch to other crops, which they say have failed to lift them out of poverty. Others say the Taleban intimidate them into colluding with the illicit drugs industry. But a major incentive this year is undoubtedly the high price that opium is fetching.
For the last decade, this southern province has consistently been the top drug-producing area of Afghanistan, the world’s main source of heroin, the substance processed from opium resin sapped from poppy heads. As such, Helmand has been at the centre of poppy eradication efforts pursued by the international community.
The province has of course also been a battleground between the Taleban and combined United States, British and Afghan troops. Conflict and instability have made it harder for economic development to take root, reduced control over how land is used, and encouraged opium cultivation because returns are high and there are few problems with transport and sales. In addition, the Taleban are accused of encouraging production so they can take a slice of the earnings from the trade.
IWPR interviews on the ground in Helmand appear to support a warning the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, issued in October that higher prices were likely to result in a seven per cent increase in the area of land under cultivation this year. While that increase was for the whole of Afghanistan, UNODC predicted a slight fall of three per cent in Helmand.
However, anecdotal evidence from IWPR’s interviews with farmers in Helmand suggest they are growing more, not less poppy because prices are so good.
“The profit from growing poppy for one year comes to more than the profits earned from growing some other crop for five years. So why shouldn’t I grow poppy?” asked Sakhidad, a farmer in the Babaji area.
Raw opium was fetching 400 US dollars a kilogram, twice its value two years ago, Sakhidad said, comparing that with the market price of legal agricultural crops which he said only just covered their production costs.
Like many poppy growers, Sakhidad justified his choice by citing endemic poverty in the region.
“There are no factories or other companies here where I could make good money. I have to grow poppy in order to make money; it’s as valuable as gold,” he said.
While opium eradication schemes once focused mainly on destroying poppies in the fields, the government’s current counter-narcotics policy is to provide wheat seed, fertiliser and farming technology, backed up by public information campaigns plus the threat of punishment and crop destruction for those who sign up and then renege on pledges to abandon poppy-growing. These measures form part of the Helmand Food Zone Programme, which is funded by the American and British governments and had been extended to more and more districts since it began about three years ago.
The response from some farmers has been to stop growing in their own fields and develop arid areas further away from the main agricultural lands that lie along the Helmand river basin.
“I’m growing poppy and I’m very happy about it,” Hajji Joma, a farmer in Gireshk district, said.
On the threat of eradication, he said, “Government officials are just bluffing. They can’t destroy these fields because they can’t enter that area. I’ve grown poppy in a place where the government won’t be able to destroy it.”
Like Sakhidad, Hajji Joma argued that the authorities had not done enough to persuade people like him to change their minds.
“I will continue growing poppy until the government provides me with the means to live. At the moment, we have nothing. There are no schools in our district and we’ve had to hire private teachers so that our children can learn,” he said. “The money, the dollars, have been embezzled by government staff, while the ordinary people have received nothing but poverty.”
The head of counter-narcotics in Helmand, Sayed Ahmad Woror, told IWPR that most poppy cultivation was taking place in arid areas where government forces exerted little control. He acknowledged that farmlands not covered by the Helmand Food Zone Programme would be left alone – confirming Hajji Joma’s assertion that farmers could grow poppy with impunity outside certain designated areas.
“Our plans do not envisage eradication in desert areas, because our backers have told us to destroy poppy only in those areas where the Food Zone Programme was implemented and where farmers have received tractors, fertilisers and other agricultural inputs in return for not growing poppy,” he said.
At the same time, Woror said he had met UNODC and International Monetary Fund representatives in Kabul and asked for additional support for eradication efforts in desert areas.
Helmand’s provincial governor, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, sent out a different message, saying massive levels of poppy cultivation were being tackled robustly regardless of where the fields were located.
“We prevented poppy cultivation in the growing season, and soon we will be starting a campaign to destroy the fields. We will arrest and prosecute everyone who has grown poppy this year. Many of them have already been arrested and are in custody,” he said.
Mangal also rejected claims that farmers were being forced into growing the illegal crop by penury and lack of government support. In the last three years, he said, 150,000 of them had received assistance under the Helmand Food Zone Programme, and in return they had pledged not to grow poppy.
Opium production and trafficking flourish amid the ongoing insurgency in Helmand, and as provincial police chief Mohammad Hakim Angar explained, the industry helps fund the conflict.
“The armed Taleban have forced people to grow poppy in order to make money from it and buy ammunition to fight the government,” he said.
Farmers who are in two minds about growing poppy are squeezed between the two sides.
Tribal elder Akhtar Mohammad Khan said the Taleban “night letters” – covertly distributed leaflets – warning farmers to grow poppies or move out of the area.
“Our people are pressed on two sides. The Taleban force them to follow their orders, on one the one hand, and the government orders them about, on the other,” he said.
However, Helmand’s farmers are not just passive victims of events. While some are keen to cash in on high prices, others express views similar to those of the insurgents.
“The government cannot protect our lives or properties. It cannot provide us with our security. We are bombarded every day and it cannot stop this,” said Rahimollah, a resident of Musa Qala District in Helmand, adding that he was raising poppies on 20 acres of state-owned land, which he had appropriated because his own farmland was under too much scrutiny.
“The foreigners [NATO forces] have brought nothing but death. They kill us with bombs – we kill them with opium. That’s a sort of jihad, too,” he said. “No matter how often the government asks me to stop growing poppies, I will carry on doing so until our lives and properties are safe.”
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Afghanistan. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 419.