Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Confessions of an Ex-Opium Grower

For many rural Afghans, there is simply no alternative to growing the plant that supplies much of the world’s heroin.
By Marwand Roghaniwal

There is simply no other crop that pays as much as opium poppies. That is why people in this poverty-stricken region grow – and will continue to grow – the flowers.

In my village, in the Rodat district of Nangarhar province, along the border with Pakistan, the scent from the flowers alone is enough to make me dizzy when I go out walking in the fields during harvest season.

Here, in one of the biggest poppy-growing regions of the biggest opium-producing country in the world, the flowers are everywhere.

Growing them is so common that no one even bothers to hide their crops.

Central government authority does not reach the villages out here, and what police there are usually owe allegiance to local strongmen involved in the drug trade.

Our family has farmed the flowers for generations, stopping only a couple of years ago when we moved into town.

We moved there in part because the Taleban’s ban on poppy cultivation made farming life unsustainable, and also to ensure a better education for the children.

However, we lease the land we still own in the village to farmers who continue to grow poppies. There is simply no other option for people around here.

Wheat earns a pittance compared with what the same plot will earn when planted with poppies. And growing grain requires much more water, a scarce resource in this area.

One young man told me how he turned half of his fields over to wheat last year. “At the same time, my cousins revelled in the money they earned from poppies,” said Ghulam said. “They bought cars and would not even salam [greet] us, they became so haughty. This year, I cultivated poppies on all my land and will buy a Land Cruiser.”

It¹s not just to acquire such luxuries that people grow the crop. When I was growing up, my father had 17 people in our family to support. Years of drought had made wheat nearly impossible to grow.

When the Taleban first took power, poppy cultivation initially increased. Then they banned it, causing great hardship for many farmers.

I don't know why they did it. Some said that local Taleban commanders were themselves involved in the drug trade and had stockpiled their own supplies. By banning additional production, they were allegedly hoping to drive up the price of their own supply.

Whatever the reason, there was almost no cultivation in 2001. An edict by the Taleban was taken very seriously since they were known to inflict harsh punishments on violators.

The ban on growing poppies drove many people to the wall. A number of farmers who were unable to support themselves by growing wheat simply left the land.

Other growers had taken cash advances against their poppy crop, leading to clashes between farmers and the moneylenders.

This, in fact, continues to be a problem, now that the poppy has returned. With such a high-value crop, and so many farmers borrowing against future production, a lot is riding on weather conditions and fluctuating prices.

Violence is sure to follow when crop expectations are not met.

One problem that poppy production has not brought to the villages is opium addiction. It may sometimes be used as a medicine, but smoking and using drugs for pleasure is seen as very bad under Islam.

I know it doesn’t make much sense – but while hashish is actually quite widely used, opium is still seen as taboo.

Myself, I can't even use snuff, so how could I use opium?

The American bombing and the overthrow of the Taleban regime came just at the right time – planting season – and the poppy seeds went straight back into the ground.

Today there are more poppies than ever.

Indeed, it is spreading to other regions, with farmers from Nangahar taking their expertise to the surrounding areas where there is more water. In exchange for teaching others how to grow poppies, they often take a share of the profits.

This year looks set to be a bumper crop, although there is always anxious talk of disease and government eradication programmes.

There is certainly no useful assistance coming from the government or foreigners to help people find other livelihoods.

While I have not experienced it personally, there are widespread complaints that officials in charge of anti-drug efforts stuff their own pockets, and little of the assistance ends up with farmers. One farmer told me that he had been promised 200 US dollars to stop growing poppies on one patch of land – but received none of it.

If authorities and foreign agencies are serious about stemming poppy cultivation, and not just interested in safeguarding their own large salaries, they need to ensure that the money goes directly to the villagers.

Factories and other industries are needed to create jobs in the provinces, so that there is no need for anybody to take part in this inhuman trade.

Given their current state of poverty, people feel that growing poppies for drugs is justified. It even has the support of some local mullahs.

The imam of Masab Bin Omer Mosque in Nangarhar, Qari Abdullah Sahar, is one of those who argues for the practical need. “Muslims are allowed to eat even forbidden meat at times of great need,” he told me, while criticising the hypocrisy of richer nations.

"If the international community is really seeking to help humanity, then why doesn’t it ban alcohol and cigarettes,” he asked. “Poppies are the only means of earning a living for our helpless nation.”

A few mullahs go even further, arguing that it counts as “jihad” to send such addictive drugs to Western nations.

I do not agree with this attitude, and worry about addicts such drugs create. We are all human, after all.

However, this is not a moral dilemma that I – or most people in the region – spend much time worrying about. For the vast majority, it is simply a matter of necessity in the face of poverty.

Marwand Roghaniwal is an independent contributor to IWPR.