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How opium poppy fields predict Afghanistan's uncertain future

Poppy field
Afghan police officers destroy an opium poppy field in Noorgal, Kunar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday.(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

The opium poppy fields of Afghanistan are a sign of what direction its farmers believe the country is heading -- and it is not positive.

On Monday the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said opium cultivation will increase for the third year in a row in its early assessment of 2013’s crop. In 12 out of 34 Afghan provinces production is increasing.

As Afghans look ahead to the post-2014 landscape when all NATO combat soldiers leave, they see opium poppy as a certainty in what is going to be an unpredictable phase.  The total production of opium poppy -- the plant is the raw material for heroin -- is expected to reach about 388,000 acres, which is how much was being grown in 2008 when Afghanistan supplied 90 per cent of the world’s heroin trade and before eradication and support programs for farmers began turning the tide. 

In the UN’s survey of 533 villages, 66 per cent said “high sales price of opium” was the reason why they grew the crop and 10 per cent mentioned a lack of government support as the reason. 

Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul are all badly hit by the Taliban-led insurgency and it is no coincidence opium cultivation is higher there than anywhere else in the country.  When life is as dangerous as it is in Afghanistan, people want a sense of security.

Heroin traffickers and the Taliban, sometimes working together, give the Afghans what their government and the international community cannot.

Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Drugs, Thugs and Crime Are Reshaping The Afghan War calls it the “predatory farm support system” where Taliban traffickers hand out poppy seeds, fertilizer, even tractors and pre-purchase the crops as encouragement to meet quotas. “It’s a farm support system the same way that farmers in Canada, the U.S. or Europe get support,” she says. 

But it is predatory because the farmers fall into deep debt trying to repay the loans. In some areas if farmers refuse to grow opium poppy, they are threatened with dire consequences, Peters says.

The level of organization is extraordinary.

“In some parts of Helmand and Nimroz provinces in the last six or seven years there have been efforts to reclaim desert area and to irrigate desert areas and turn it into farmland for poppy,” she says. “It is not poor share-croppers who are irrigating, it is rich drug traffickers.”

By contrast, the Afghan government can’t match these levels of organization and money.

This year, the Afghan government will hand out $18.2 million (U.S.) as rewards to provinces that reduced poppy cultivation or didn’t grow it at all.  

But Afghans need a lot more, says Mark Schneider, senior vice-president of the International Crisis Group think-tank. Particularly since dry opium pays $203 per kilogram. Licit crops can’t match that price: farmers earn 41 cents for a kilogram of wheat.

“That is where you hope if you have a lot of incentives like physical security, you can provide health care, schools, roads and it will convince farmers not to grow. But farmers have little basis for believing that’s going to happen,” he says. 

Opium poppy has always been grown in Afghanistan but its rise in the role of the economy runs parallel to the Soviet invasion and later civil war.

Agriculture has historically been the backbone of the country -- the country has plenty of fertile land and produces delicious apricots, pomegranates, raisins and pistachios to name a few -- but the rural infrastructure has been destroyed over the last three decades. The Soviets began destroying irrigation canals in the 1980s and the Taliban finished off what was left.

James Brett, co-founder of Plant for Peace, which helps rural communities, says investing in rebuilding Afghanistan’s agriculture would transform society. 

“I’ve been here for six years and the donor support we’d need to do this is less than one per cent of the billions that have been spent over the last decade,” he says in an interview from Kabul. Cold storage facilities to store produce and keep it from spoiling before it can get to international markets is one practical solution.  At the moment if the farmers are lucky their goods are shipped to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan.

“The Pakistanis store the fruit in cold storage and when it is out of season sell them back to the Afghans at a higher price,” he says. “This is the best place for horticulture in the world but the Afghans are importing fruit from places like China, it’s absurd.”   

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour


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At least we finally know that our young Canadian men and women in the Armed Forces died or got maimed for life for a good cause, what they suffered to protect, eh. We can be proud that their sacrifices, their lives, 11 years of war and many $ Billions, were not wasted.

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