Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Canucks turn blind eye to opium

The Calgary Sun

Sangin, Afghanistan -- When the commander of Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan's poppy-rich Helmand province gives his word to village elders his soldiers are not there to rip up their fields, he means it.

Maj. Bill Fletcher takes great care to ensure his armoured vehicles don't wreck the green pastures, or cause damage to the plants that feed drug addiction in the West.

"It's basically my word as a commander to them," he said at Forward Operating Base Robinson, in the heart of Helmand River valley.

"There's a code of ethics and honour around here. My word as a commander, and my platoon commanders give their word that Canadians will not be involved in these things, seems to be taken at face value."

So far, the farmers, whose livelihood depends on opium, haven't caught on to the fact that the Canadian, British and U.S. governments support poppy eradication efforts with money, training and alternative crop programs.

But uprooting the plant from which opium and heroin is derived is not the kind of image the military wants to cultivate as it tries to build trust among suspicious rural Afghans.

As commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Fletcher is faced with the problem every time he looks at his perimeter: Poppies crowd the edge of the razor-wire defences.

Given the grinding poverty, the troops find it hard not to feel sympathy for the farmers.

"The reality for these guys is they grow poppies because they get enough money to live," said Fletcher.

"They're not drug barons, you know. They're not huge traffickers or anything else. They're just farmers trying to make a go in what is a pretty tough landscape."

The farmers earn an average of about $685 per year. A field of poppies fetches 27 times more than a field of wheat in this reasonably barren land, which at one time was bread basket of Afghanistan.


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