Afghans try opium-free economy

Taliban turns the world's largest supplier of opium into a wheat grower.

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Last year, Mahgul and her family cultivated one acre of wheat and five acres of opium poppy, just as farmers on this land have done for generations.

The fields of white, pink, and purple opium flowers grow so well here that Afghanistan had become the world's biggest supplier of the narcotic base.

As much as 80 percent of the opium used by heroin addicts from Amsterdam to Haight Ashbury could be traced to Afghan farmers like Mahgul - until now.

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Today, her family's entire plot - and all the farmland for miles around - is covered in lush green wheat, on the order of the ruling Taliban government. Once the annual source of 3,500 tons of opium, Afghanistan has reportedly nearly eradicated all poppy under cultivation in the 2001 growing season.

The implication for opium supplies - and heroin prices - globally can't be overstated. The ban's impact on the income of Afghans is just starting to be felt.

While Mahgul knows her family will make no profits from growing grain instead of opium, she supports the Taliban's total ban on opium this year. "We were poor before the ban, and we will be poor after the ban," she says, standing among the knee-high stalks. "But at least we will have something to eat."

This move by the ruling Taliban is made even more astounding, given that it is facing a five-year civil war with the Northern Alliance of Mujahideen fighters, a two-year drought, no international drug-control funding, no international recognition, and no money of its own to compensate farmers. It is hard to say what has motivated the Islamist movement to push for an outright ban at this time. Local opium prices have already risen 10-fold since last spring. And for this year at least, there's a negative effect on thousands of farmers who have relied on opium as a livelihood and a way of life.

"We did a great job, and now it is time for the world community to respond," says Maulvi Amir Muhammad Haqqani, an Islamic scholar and head of the Taliban's drug control group in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a major opium hub. "This is an urgent situation for our farmers. They are looking for something else to meet their needs, like fertilizer and seeds to start over."

To be sure, there is much skepticism that the Taliban's decree is anything more than a mirage to gain international recognition and aid. Some diplomats say that there are enough stockpiles of opium within Afghanistan to supply the world for more than a year. In its latest report on the world's top drug-producing states, the US State Department proclaimed Afghanistan to be "the world's largest opium producer after another year of major increases." The report noted that a previous promise to reduce poppy cultivation by one-third fell far short.

But even this report noted that it had no direct evidence that the Taliban's ban on opium was not being followed this year. "While there have been some credible reports of scattered enforcement actions," the State Department report said, "it will not be possible to assess the extent of any eradication or reduction in cultivation until mid-2001."

Bernard Frahi also had his doubts. As regional director for the United Nations Drug Control Program, he had been involved in negotiations with the Taliban for years, and had seen only minor results. But now that UNDCP observers have surveyed some 85 percent of the country's known opium-growing areas, he is confident that Afghanistan's opium ban is legitimate.

"The first year, in 2000, they only decreased opium by 10 percent, and we said it's not enough. Now they've banned it outright. What are we going to say to that?" asks Mr. Frahi in Islamabad, Pakistan. "We have to recognize it as a major result."

Opium has long been a constant in this part of the world, but it was only in the past 23 years of war that Afghanistan became such a major supplier of the world's illicit drugs. After the Soviet invasion of 1979, warlords and Islamic mujahideen grew massive plots of opium to help fund their war effort. Once the Soviets were ousted in 1989, a sophisticated network of opium cultivation, distribution, and marketing was well in place, and seemingly impossible to remove.

All that changed in 1995, with the advent of the student-led Taliban movement, whose stated goal is to create the world's purest Islamic state. Since Islam's leader, the Prophet Muhammad, preached explicitly against drug addiction, the Taliban have long stated their desire to eradicate opium production. But it was only in the past two years that the Taliban rulers started acting on it.

"It shows that the Taliban has total control in Afghanistan, and this is incredible," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia." But the ban comes at a significant cost to Afghan farmers, adds the Lahore, Pakistan-based journalist, who covered 20 years of Afghan war. "In farming communities, opium was the banking system. All borrowing and lending was done through opium. By banning poppy cultivation, you have destroyed the grass-roots banking system" that allowed Afghan families to weather the hard times, and to advance themselves in good times.

The penetration of opium into the everyday business of ordinary Afghans is striking. In the prosperous trading city of Jalalabad, the entire local economy was - and arguably still is - fueled by the opium trade. Nangarhar province, which includes Jalalabad, has excellent conditions for crops: rich soil, plenty of irrigation, and hot summers that produce some of the best-quality opium poppy resin in the world. Here, farmers grew 24 percent of the nation's total opium, and sold their produce to a network of dealers and distributors who passed it on for processing into heroin and for sale to Europe, America, and beyond.

Opium had become such a part of normal commerce that many farmers used opium as a form of currency to buy their groceries at the market, to purchase additional acres of land, or to fund their children's education. Some would promise shopkeepers and wheat merchants a portion of their future opium crop in return for cash to pay for food in the past few months before harvest. This suited the merchants fine, since the price of opium generally remained stable. Afghanistan's currency, the Afghani, does not: At present, $1 equals 80,000 afghanis, and devaluations are common.

The poppy ban is likely to wreak havoc on local economies across Afghanistan. One effect, perhaps unintentional, is that the price of a kilo of opium resin has risen from $30 last year to about $400 this spring. Many farmers, who owe debts on crops they are not allowed to grow anymore, are consequently defaulting on their loans.

Some, like Noorajan, a young farmer in the dusty but irrigated district of Sorkh Rod, near Jalalabad, say they will pay off their debt, no matter what.

"I borrowed around 200,000 afghanis in cash to help me buy a small piece of land for my own. Now my creditor tells me I owe him 1.2 million afghanis," he says, squinting into the sun. "It will take a lifetime to pay it off, but I will work it off with my sweat."

Others have fled the country, joining the 150,000 drought and war refugees fleeing into Pakistan early this year.

"Those people who owed money, they have left the country," says Ali Rahman, a wheat merchant in Jalalabad. Mr. Rahman says he never dealt in opium himself, but he occasionally accepted opium payments from farmers when it was legal to do so. "We are totally affected by the ban on poppy. We don't expect to make our debts back."

Muhammad Amir, another wheat merchant, says that many farmers were willing to accept the Taliban's decree this year in hopes that the international community would respond. "If the world community doesn't give aid soon," he says, "we will request the Taliban to reconsider its ban and bring back the poppy."

But Maulvi Haqqani, the Taliban drug control officer in Jalalabad, says that any rumors that the Taliban would reverse the ban are fabrications, and that in any case, the Taliban government won't change its opium decree.

"We are all Muslims and our country is Muslim," he says, stroking his henna-colored beard. "And when the authority of a Muslim land asks the community to obey a religious decree, even if they are starving or facing a difficult situation, they have to obey and they have to be patient."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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