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

Farmers Enraged by Poppy Crackdown

The government has moved to destroy poppy fields in the east of the country, after failing to come to an agreement with farmers over compensation.
By Jorat Stargawar

Violence broke out across the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar this week as the authorities discovered that outlawed production of poppies - representing a secure income for farmers hard hit by years of drought - has grown faster than their power to eradicate them.


Farmers from Nangarhar's Shenwar district enraged by the authorities' poppy eradication programme blocked a convoy of 14,000 refugees returning to Afghanistan from camps in Pakistan Tuesday and shot at a government anti-drugs survey team, killing one man and wounding four.


Opponents of the crackdown on poppy production have also been blamed for a bomb attack on interim defence minister Mohammad Qaseem Fahim that killed four and wounded some 70 innocent bystanders in the provincial capital Jalalabad earlier this week.


Offers of compensation to growers of poppies if they destroy the heroin-producing crop are backed by a government threat that it will do it for them if they don't obey. The farmers say the latest sum offered by the authorities, about 500 US dollars an acre, won't even cover their costs, let alone match the income the narcotics would fetch on the open market.


Afghanistan once provided 70 per cent of the world's supply of opium which, transformed into heroin, underpins a multi-billion dollar criminal network across Western Europe. A ban on poppy farming was strictly applied by the Taleban after 2000 but collapsed with their fall.


Most of the country's poppy crop is grown in the provinces of Helmand and Nangarhar, according to the UN Drugs Control Programme, UNDCP. There is an estimated 120,000 jerib (Iranian acres) of poppy fields in Nangarhar alone, it says. Harvesting is due to begin in May.


Though the eradication programme officially only began on April 8, provincial and national authorities have been trying for weeks to persuade the local farmers to change their ways.


"The growing of poppies (for narcotics) is forbidden both by Islam and the international community," said Ashraf Ghani, advisor to the interim authority. "It is harmful, not only for our society but to the rest of the world as well. I want the tribal elders to turn over the poppies and destroy them."


But his opening March 28 meeting with local tribal leaders in Nangarhar, hosted by provincial governor Haji Abdul Qadeer, did not go well. The farmers rejected both the compensation offer and the threats from the government.


"For five years we have been suffering from the drought but neither the last (Taleban) government nor the new (interim) one, nor the international NGOs have helped us," said one Shenwari tribal leader, Haji Jan Mohammad. "We are caught up in bigger economic problems and don't have enough for a single meal. That's why we plant poppies."


The Shenwari felt the unseen presence of the world's major consumer of heroin, the United States, and tried to cut their deal accordingly. "America or the UN must give us 3,000 dollars per jerib," said another Shenwari elder, Haji Zar Wali. "Then we will turn over our crops."


The discussions on price were postponed for a week, but the demands for action applied by the interim authority, at the behest of the US and UN, began to bite.


Even before the week was up, the local security forces were moving in to dig up the fields. The commander of units in the district of Khoghyani, Haji Zaman Ghamshareek, angered many farmers in his area with his peremptory action.


Khoghani local elders led by Malak Yarmond warned "their sader (shawls) will be our shrouds if you turn over the poppies". He said that the farmers had to be given a fair price for their crops.


"Haji Zaman (Ghamshareek) takes money from the international agencies for digging up our poppies, but he doesn't give any of it to us," charged another Khoghyani farmer, Niyaz Mohammad Haqmal. "We are poor and we are in debt to the opium traders who have given us money in advance to grow the poppies. Now we have used all the money. If we cannot give them the poppies, how will we repay them?"


The compensation offer rose over the course of last week, as did the tension. "The government made a fresh offer of 250 dollars per jerib but the farmers said it still didn't cover the costs of ploughing, seeding, tractor hire and fertiliser," said farmer Mohammed Jan of Kama district.


Without progress on compensation, the authorities increased their enforcement programmes. Tractors were hired in the southern province of Helmand to plough over poppy fields there. Eight farmers were reported killed and 16 injured on April 5 when Afghan security forces fired on protesting farmers in the province. Then, on April 8 came the dramatic attack on defence minister Fahim, who had been visiting Jalalabad in part to discuss the poppy field enforcement programmes.


Jorat Stargawar is a freelance journalist in Kabul specialising in human rights.


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