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

Northern Afghan Province Says No to Opium

Balkh province, formerly one of Afghanistan’s major poppy-growing centres, is heading for drug-free status.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Muhammad Nazar is busily weeding his cotton fields. Last year at this time, he was engaged in harvesting poppy, but, like many landowners in Balkh province, has had a change of heart.

“The government has restricted poppy cultivation, and religious leaders have told us that growing poppy is haram [prohibited by Islam],” he said. “We should not go against our religion and the constitution.”

As he continued to work, he said, “I hope to get a good harvest, and the government has promised us a good price for cotton.”

Balkh province used to be the third-largest producer of opium poppy, after Helmand and Kandahar. But this year, the counter-narcotics programme has all but rid the province of the illegal crop.

Some farmers, like Nazar, say that they have switched to legitimate farming because of government strictures. But many others give a more pragmatic reason for decision.

“The price of poppy has been going down year by year,” said Noor Gul, a farmer in Charbolak, formerly the centre of Balkh’s poppy cultivation. “We couldn’t afford the expense of growing it, so we decided to plant something else instead.”

Dealers say that the price of opium has been declining due to overproduction. While in past years, a kilo of opium paste would fetch over 130 US dollars on the local market, it is now worth about half that.

Afghanistan, the world’s main source of opium poppy, produced 6,100 tons of opium paste in 2006, close to 30 per cent above world demand, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. This year, production is likely to be even bigger, say government officials.

“We lost a lot of money last year,” said Noor Gul. “We spent a lot on poppy, and got too little in return.” This year, he has switched to wheat.

Even drug traffickers are having problems. Those who buy up raw paste on the local market to sell on to bigger dealers for export say they cannot make a living out of the trade any more.

“We used to encourage farmers to grow poppy,” said one small-time trafficker, who did not want to be named. “I don’t know what went wrong this year. I had to sell my poppy at a much lower price [than last year], so I quit. I am doing much better as a shopkeeper.”

During a visit to Balkh in mid-May, Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Muqbel told reporters that the province was now poppy-free.

“I am grateful to the governor and the people of Balkh that they have reduced poppy cultivation to zero in Balkh province,” he said. “This is a big achievement. The government in Balkh worked with the people and convinced them that cultivating poppy is not to their advantage.

“We are going to apply this experience to those provinces that are still growing poppy."

Muqbel added that the government would launch development projects to help the people of Balkh province.

The onus will now be on the authorities to prove to farmers that their decision was correct.

“We have a lot of problems,” said Nasrullah, a farmer in the Chemtal district. “The irrigation system isn’t working, and there is no proper market for our produce. And the government hasn’t helped us with seeds or fertiliser.”

But he added that there were some signs of progress, “Last winter, the government came to our village and asked us about our problems, and now we see that they are working on reconstructing the dam. So we are hopeful.”

Nasrullah warned that there are limits to the farmers’ patience.

“If the government doesn’t fulfill its promises, we will return to poppy,” he said. “More than before.”

Atta Muhammad Noor, the governor of Balkh, acknowledged that the government had an obligation to the farmers.

“We have completely eliminated poppy from Balkh,” he said. “We have made commitments and we have to keep them. However, the international community and the United States government have made promises to us, and they have not followed through.”

William Wood, the newly-appointed US ambassador to Afghanistan, visited Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, on May 13.

“According to the statistics, there is no poppy left in Balkh,” he told reporters. “We have asked the US Congress to provide generous economic assistance for Balkh as a reward.”

Many observers question why, when Balkh is such a success, other provinces remain firmly committed to the poppy trade.

“The case of Balkh indicates that, if the government is serious, there will not be a single poppy plant left in Afghanistan,” said Muhammad Nabi Assir, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif. “It is quite incredible. One of the largest poppy-producing areas has completely eliminated the crop. Meanwhile, other provinces are increasing production.”

The Balklh experience could be translated to other provinces, he added, if the local governments were so inclined.

But Zalmai Afzali, spokesman for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, said that good security was the main cause of Balkh’s success, just as instability was the reason why counter-narcotics efforts had failed in places like Helmand, the main opium-producing region by a long shot.

Helmand has been the scene of major fighting between the resurgent Taleban and foreign-backed government troops, which has hampered eradication efforts.

“We have been more successful in Balkh because it there’s a lower presence of mafia and insurgents,” said Afzali. “We have stopped poppy production there, and we hope to do the same in the other eight provinces in the north.”

According to Afzali, the scale of eradication in Afghanistan has almost doubled in the last year - 25,000 hectares had been destroyed, as opposed to 13,000 in 2006.

But this may be more than offset by a surge in poppy cultivation in Helmand, where, according to provincial officials, 20,000 hectares more have been planted with the crop this year compared with 2006.

“If poppy production is high in Afghanistan again this year, it is entirely due to Helmand,” said Interior Minister Muqbel. “We have security problems in Helmand and we are going to solve the poppy problem by stabilising the situation there.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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