By Gol Ahmad Ehsan
Farmers in Helmand have threatened to go back to growing opium poppy because the Afghan government has not helped them market the alternative crops it encouraged them to grow.
Although the opium grown in this southern province is still the source of most of the world’s heroin, a two-year eradication campaign conducted by the Afghan government and the international community has shown some results. The area under cultivation this year was seven per cent down on 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC.
The main substitute crop chosen for Helmand was cotton, which had been successfully grown there between the 1960s and 1980s.
Farmers like Mohammad Jan, from the Marja district, say they are not selling enough to make a living these days.
“I haven’t grown poppy for the past two years; I’ve grown cotton instead,” Mohammad Jan said. “But I failed to feed my family. I’ve been disappointed this year, too, because there’s no market for cotton. The government won’t buy it from us, and the price the traders pay isn’t profitable for us.”
As a result, this farmer has made a difficult decision.
“If things go on like this, I will grow poppy again next year, and I will defend the crop [from eradication officers] as well, because it’s better to be killed than to die of starvation,” he said.
Sherin Khan, director of the Bost cotton gin in Helmand, says the plant cannot afford to take all the raw cotton produced in the region.
“We cannot buy all the cotton, because the finance ministry provides us with a budget to buy only 3,000 tons,” he said. “That’s why we cannot solve the farmers’ problems.”
The Bost plant closed after civil war broke out with the collapse of President Najibullah’s government in 1992. Until then, much of the cotton was bought up by the state. In the chaos that followed, the factories that used the cotton to manufacture fabric also closed down.
The head of the provincial agriculture department, Ahmadullah Ahmadzai said it was proving difficult to find new markets.
“We have talked to foreign donors and organisations about finding international markets for Helmand products, particularly cotton. They have made promises to us, but so far we haven’t made any progress,” he said.
Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand’s provincial governor Gulab Mangal, recognises the danger of the cotton project failing.
“There’s concern that if farmers don’t have markets for their produce and are unable to sell them, they may start growing poppy again in the coming years,” he said.
At the same time, Ahmadi said the governor’s office bore no responsibility for the Bost cotton gin’s inability to buy up the whole crop.
With local processing capacity limited, farmer sell the surplus to commercial middlemen.
The head of the economics department in the provincial government, Abdul Rashid, accused these middlemen of paying rock-bottom prices.
Traders retorted that prices were low because of lack of demand for cotton both in Afghanistan and abroad, principally in Pakistan.
“I bought some cotton last year myself,” Ali Ahmad Naseri, who heads the provincial branch of a traders’ association, said. “At that time the price was over one [US] dollar a kilogram. But I was unable to sell the cotton – I still have it. The price has fallen by 50 per cent this year, because so much cotton was grown. I’ve made a big loss.”
He added that many others related similar experiences, and they were now reluctant to buy more cotton.
The head of counter-narcotics in Helmand, Abdul Qader Zahir, warned that opium production remained illegal whatever the economic circumstances, and would not be tolerated.
“If there is no market for the farmers’ cotton, that does not mean they can grow poppy,” he said. “There are markets for all of Helmand’s agricultural products and business is good here. There are problems only with cotton, because the government is unable to buy up as much as it used to take.”
As well as disappointing cotton sales, another factor motivating farmers to switch back to opium may be the rising prices paid for the latter. Average farm-gate prices for dry opium reached 274 dollars a kilo in March 2011, from 98 dollars a year earlier, according to UNODC.
Matiullah, a farmer in Helmand who spoke to IWPR, reported earning 300 dollars a kilo this year.
In 2010, he said, his earnings did not even cover his outlay on running a generator to pump well water for irrigation, so he planted poppy this year to recoup his losses.
“I thought I’d make a loss if I grew cotton or other crops,” Matiullah said. “I decided to grow poppy, reasoning that if I harvested it, I’d make a profit, and if they [eradication squads] destroyed the field, I’d have made a loss anyway. So I grew poppy and earned good profits – I sold it [opium] at 300 dollars a kilogram. If I don’t grow anything for another two years, the profits will still have been enough for me.”
Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand province This article was produced by IWPR’s Afghanistan Reports.