Opium Growers Defy Ban

Farmers are still planting poppies across many provinces – and will continue to do so until compensation is offered.

Opium Growers Defy Ban

Farmers are still planting poppies across many provinces – and will continue to do so until compensation is offered.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The poppy harvest last year was one of the biggest ever recorded in Afghanistan in spite of President Hamed Karzai’s January 2002 ban on the crop.

Two-thirds of the harvest came from just two defiant provinces – Nangrahar in the east and Helmand in the south – traditionally the country’s major producers. Production continues unabated in four other areas.

The result was a 3,400 tonne opium harvest across Afghanistan – enough to supply heroin for all of Russia and much of Europe, according to the annual survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC.

Harvested opium sold for 350-450 dollars per kilo last year, and this bumper crop meant an average gross income of 6,500 dollars per poppy-growing family - in a country where wages are typically less than 500 dollars a year.

Farmers are understandably unwilling to give up these earnings without some form of compensation, and this has led to increased tensions between the government and opium growers in the provinces.

The authorities’ efforts to crack down on the industry have met with mixed success. While some poppy fields have been destroyed, the police have also met resistance and even violence in many towns and villages. At least one person has been killed in Nangrahar province.

In February, in the Khogyani, Wazeer and Agam districts of Nangrahar, authorities had to flee from uprisings by local residents, who threw stones and in a few cases shot at police.

Mohammad Hassan, a resident of Akhundzada village of Wazeer district, and village leader Haji Dawa Jan from Agam district, told IWPR that the authorities had come to uproot the poppies but were turned back. “The local people opened fire on them and the authorities were unable to retaliate, so they fled. They haven’t come back since,” he said.

The military commander in Nangrahar province, Lieutenant-General Hazrat Ali, denied that his men were afraid. “We are definitely going to uproot poppies this year, because this industry disgraces us before the whole world and blocks aid from other countries. Anybody who disobeys will be responsible for the consequences,” he warned.

Also in February, one man, Baz Mohammad, was killed and two others were injured when residents clashed with police attempting to uproot poppies in Shinwari district, also in Nangrahar locals told IWPR.

Mirwais Yasini, director-general of the government’s counter-narcotics department, denied that Baz Mohammad was shot in a scuffle over poppies, but confirmed that two people had been injured. He added that Karzai’s ban has been respected in some provinces and even in parts of Nangrahar.

But a drug control official from the interior ministry, General Sultan Mohammad Quraishe, said that only around a fifth of all poppy fields have been eliminated – and these were “easy hits” such as areas being cultivated near roads.

Quraishe told IWPR that farmers in Helmand and Kandahar have rebelled against efforts to control the crop, while other provinces continue to grow poppies without any attempt at control by the local authorities. They are grown in hidden-away places such as walled compounds and in the mountains.

The failure to control the crop is symptomatic not only of the ineffectiveness of central government, but also of the country’s larger problems - warlordism, poverty, and lack of other alternatives in farming and employment.

Another problem facing the authorities is that farmers are loath to destroy their valuable crops without recompense. A local drug control representative in Nangrahar, Mohammad Alam, said that locals want 9,000 dollars compensation for every jerib - 2,000 square metres - of poppies uprooted. “This is beyond our capacity,” he said.

Abid Shinwari, Baz Mohammad’s father, says that he simply can’t afford to destroy his plants without compensation, because he borrowed 200,000 Pakistani rupees (around 3,450 dollars) as an advance to prepare this year’s crop. “If the government roots out the poppies, I will have to escape and go somewhere where I am not known, because the lenders will be looking for me,” he told IWPR.

Bahram, another resident of Marko village, said, “Poppies are our way of life. We have to defend the crop from being destroyed.”

The UNODC report recognises that to fully eradicate poppies, a long and sustained effort will be required. “Dismantling the opium economy … cannot simply be done by military or authoritarian means. That has been tried in the past, and was unsustainable. It must be done with the instruments of democracy, the rule of law, and development,” wrote executive director Antonio Maria Costa.

Hakam Khan Chapand is an independent journalist in Kabul.

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