Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Afghanistan: No alternative to opium, say farmers

Pak Tribune

Sitting in his neighbour's swirling field of poppy, wearing dusty clothes, farmerAbdul Qauom, 32, is keen to find an alternative crop that will earn him a living after his two hectares of opium fields were recently destroyed by state security forces, in line with government policy.

Kandahar - "I don’t know what to cultivate. There is nothing that can meet the financial needs of my family," said father-of-six Qauom. "The government has destroyed my crops without paying any compensation or giving me anything else to farm."

Abdul Qauom lives in the Arghandab district, around 25 km west of Kandahar city in the southern province of the same name - where production of the drug is prolific. He exemplifies the dilemma for thousands of Afghan farmers - they would give up the lucrative poppy if only there was a viable alternative.

"We don’t have any choice about cultivating poppies because it’s the only means for our survival," said Amir Mohammad, 30, another farmer in the village, as he lanced the bulbous poppy heads to encourage the precious fluid to ooze out.

The UN puts the dependence on opium production down to a series of structural problems faced by the farmers in the arid region. "Due to a severe lack of proper irrigation and assistance, farmers are mostly relying on poppy cultivation to make a living," Fazal Mohammad Fazli, regional coordinator of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) in Kandahar, said.

Post-conflict Afghanistan still supplies almost 90 percent of the world’s opium. The international community set up drug eradication programmes in Afghanistan after US-led coalition forces toppled the hardline Taliban regime in 2001, but they have had little impact on poppy production.

Said Mohammad Azam, spokesman for the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN), said that alternative livelihoods was one of essential pillars of the country’s national drug control strategy.

"During the past month, the government has already provided farmers in all provinces with chemical fertilisers and proper seeds worth US $25 million," Azam explained, adding that the government would not make particular deals with opium producers who continued to grow the crop.

The country’s economy also continues to rely heavily on the trade in illicit drugs. The UN and the government have estimated the total export value of Afghanistan’s opium in 2005 at $2.7 billion - equivalent to 52 percent of the country’s official gross domestic product.

Analysts question the government’s current policy on poppy eradication, dubbing it all stick and no carrot. They also believe that eradication of the crop at gunpoint, with no compensation or alternatives offered, is fuelling ongoing insecurity in the country.

"It is a multi-factorial issue," said local writer Sadullah Ghelgai, adding; "Widespread unemployment, poverty and pressure on farmers from the drug traffickers are the main factors behind poppy cultivation."

"Farmers are trapped between two opposite demands. The government is forcing them to stop poppy cultivation while the Taliban and the powerful drug dealers, active in this region, are pressuring them to do so. Even some farmers had left their homes and migrated to neighboring Pakistan because they cannot handle this pressure," Abdurrahman, a local analyst in Kandahar, told IRIN.

An extra 3,300 UK troops are heading to the southern Helmand province as part of a NATO-led force to help boost security and combat trafficking in drugs.

But this won’t deter Abdul Qauom, who has already bought new poppy seeds with a loan from a local opium trafficker and will plant them when the eradication teams move on. "I know it’s against the law, I’m not a bad man, but I have to feed my family and pay bills."


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