Afghan peasants bear the brunt of curbs on opium
Kabul - He is a 70-year-old drug baron who will claim the girl in lieu of a $2,000 debt her family amassed when their opium harvest failed.
"We don�t have any choice. If the money-lender wants our land, our daughters, we have to do whatever makes him happy," says 65-year-old Abdul Satar, tears welling up in his eyes.
Mr Satar�s harvest was wiped out by a freak hailstorm rather than US-backed counter-narcotics forces, but his predicament highlights how impoverished farmers bear the brunt of the war on drugs.
In the village of Deh Magas, an hour�s drive into the hills above Argu, the main drugs bazaar in north-eastern Afghanistan�s Badakhshan province, the land is too poor to support crops other than opium, which needs very little water.
Afghanistan has seen a drop in the number of acres used to grow poppies - 256,880 last year, down from 323,500 acres in 2004, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.
Although the country�s overall opium production - which accounts for 90 per cent of global output - remained steady, the drop in the number of poppy fields planted was hailed as a success in western efforts to curb its narcotics trade.
Some provinces saw sharper declines in poppy cultivation with a 53 per cent drop in Badakhshan and a 90 per cent drop in eastern Nangahar - the re-sult of tighter law enforcement, eradication and promises of aid.
The figures paint a bright picture but behind the numbers the debts of impoverished opium farmers have grown, tightening the stranglehold drug traders have on the local economy. In rural Afghanistan, opium is used as a form of credit. Drug smugglers advance farmers cash against the coming harvest and that is repaid back in opium.
If the harvest fails, or is eradicated by police, the debt multiplies, leaving farmers deeply in hock to traders and left with little option but to sell their land, livestock or, in the worst cases, their daughters.
Since last year there has been a surge in reports of child marriage to repay debts. "Ten years ago, before people started growing opium, you saw people selling their daughters, selling their children, and now it�s happening again. People are desperate and are looking for husbands for girls as young as eight to make ends meet," says Fazel Rahman, a trader in the Argu drugs bazaar where opium and heroin are bought and sold. A recent report commissioned by the British government cites the common perception in rural Afghanistan that the war on drugs is penalising the poorest of the poor, while those with links to the authorities or the finances to bribe eradication teams escape unhurt. "This perception remains divisive and, if true, could serve to increase cultivation in subsequent years but drive up accumulated debt," says the report�s author David Mansfield.
In Badakhshan, dozens of farmers interviewed by the Financial Times in the districts of Argu and Baharak said that, after voluntarily planting other crops in 2005 in return for promises of aid, they were now being forced to plant poppies to settle their debts with local dealers.
"I used to own land but I had to sell it to pay off the money-lender. Now I just work in other people�s opium fields. All those promises the government made were empty. There are no roadmakers, no NGOs, nobody with jobs," says Abdul Maroof, a 35-year-old opium farmer in Baharak district. USAID pledged $60m to alternative projects in Badakhshan in the five years from 2005, but only $4.2m hit the ground last year, leaving many farmers at the mercy of the dealers.
"There is no doubt that criminals have become stronger since last year and people have little confidence in the government. They think the war on drugs is a political game," says General Shah Jahan Noori, the province�s police chief. Abdul Satar, too, will plant opium again.
But his harvest will be too late for Esther.
She will be married to the village drug baron Khan Mohammed, to pay for the flour, sugar and tea the family bought at his dry goods shop over the winter.
"My daughters are beautiful, but they are hungry," says Bibi Sahra, the girl�s mother who has eight other children to feed.