Debt traps Afghan opium growers
Traders use debt to keep Afghan farmers in cycle of drug production.
Kandahar, Afghanistan — Abdullah doesn't use the drugs that his poppy fields produce, but he and his family are as hooked on opium as any addict.
"In the beginning, we took debt from the poppy lord," explained Abdullah, not his real name. "Once you have taken money from someone, you are bound to him."
The struggle to wean Afghanistan off poppy faces obstacles from the lack of good-quality alternative seed to the fact the drug harvest brings in 10 times as much money to impoverished villagers as a crop of wheat.
But one of the steepest barriers — now being addressed by millions of dollars in Canadian funding — is financial.
While Canadian farmers have ready access to credit to get them through the growing season, the only place most rural Afghans can turn is to a local trader who insists on payment in the most valuable and tradable community around — opium.
Abdullah, who farms about half a hectare near Kandahar, owes the equivalent of $3,400 Cdn to pay for seed, fertilizer and groceries while they wait for the poppies to bloom. In return, the lender will take half his crop.
That won't retire Abdullah's debt, but it leaves him enough to keep his 11-member family going — and keeps him tied to the lender, who will insist on another poppy crop next season. Abdullah, his eyes narrow and dark with suspicion for strangers he fears have come to destroy his crop, is quite aware he is trapped.
"We cannot run anywhere," he said. "Our field is here. Our home is here. If we skip on our debt, the poppy lord will capture our land."
Abdullah is lucky. His lender just wants money.
Earlier this year, published reports told of a 70-year-old drug baron who claimed a debtor's 13-year-old daughter in lieu of a $2,000 debt.
But Abdullah is no exception. The United Nations lists so-called ``salaam" loans as one of the key reasons farmers keep replanting poppy.
"`Salaam' loans, which obliges farmers to plant and harvest opium in order to repay their debts, were identified in the past as a major driving force for poppy cultivation," says the UN's 2005 opium survey.
More than one-third of 3,772 farmers surveyed in 2005 said they had at least one outstanding loan, a percentage that is growing.
The survey found that poppy farmers tended to owe more money than non-poppy farmers. As well, previous UN studies found the payment received by the farmer for his crop was less than half the opium's market value.
And most of those loans were made by shopkeepers and traders, who, according to the UN, "are often involved in the opium business."
Nor are fertilizer and food the only costs pressuring Afghan farmers into debt. An Afghan marriage is a major outlay, with the groom expected to shower his bride with expensive gifts.
The UN reports wedding costs as the third-most common reason farmers increased their poppy planting, at least part of which would have gone to pay back salaam loans.
Sarah Chayes, a development worker in Kandahar involved in trying to find alternative, high-value crops for Afghan farmers, sums up the opium debt trap:
"People are forced into debt because there is no banking system," she said. "You borrow from the opium trafficker and you have to pay back in opium."
The government of Afghanistan, with funding from international organizations such as the Canadian International Development Agency, has been working to create an alternative banking system for years, offering small-scale, short-term loans to rural borrowers without other access to credit.
CIDA is one of the main donors to the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan. The program is one of the main beneficiaries of Canada's $18.5 million Alternative Livelihoods Program.
"It's safe to assume that some of that money is finding its way to poppy farmers," said a Canadian development official in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The money is distributed through banks, credit unions, non-governmental organizations and traditional lending vehicles such as hawalas, which distribute cash through an informal but honour-bound network of IOUs.
The microfinance program has now served more than 100,000 clients, although not all of them are rural-based or poppy farmers.
It's only one part of the solution to weaning Afghanistan's economy off drugs.
But until farmers like Abdullah have somewhere else to turn than the open wallets of the opium traders for the resources they need to feed their families, even the best alternative crops are likely to find few takers and poppy will continue to be the essential crop.
"Please," he pleads, still suspicious of his questioner, "for our sake and the sake of the Holy Qur'an, do not eradicate our poppy. This is the food of our family and of our children."