Fragile success against Afghanistan's opium economy

Poppy cultivation fell by about 20 percent, after two years of record harvests.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Keeping it up: To grow other crops, people need aid for a dam and irrigation, agrees tribal elder Mohammad Amin.
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    Alternatives: Mehrajuddin, a farmer in Ghani Khel, has replaced his poppy field with okra. But he doubts whether the government will deliver on agricultural aid it promised in return.
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A year ago, the province that surrounds this dusty town of onion farmers was Afghanistan's No. 2 producer of opium. Today, Nangarhar has eradicated opium entirely.

It is the most dramatic reversal in a year offering the first hints of progress against opium, with harvests declining nationwide.

Yet in the chalk-white fields above Ghani Khel, tribal elder Pat Zirak Mohammad predicts that Nangarhar's opium ban will not last. To grow anything other than poppy, his people need a dam to harness water from seasonal floods. But he is skeptical that the government will deliver. "If that doesn't happen, our people will again grow poppy," he says.

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Through its bold attempts to ban poppy in recent years, Nangarhar has become the preeminent case study on how to wean Afghanistan from its poppy crop. Mr. Mohammad's words point to the difficulty of making success last.

In a country that produces 90 percent of the world's opium, and where opium is tied to rampant corruption and violence, the benefits of such bans are clear.

But for Afghans who, like Mohammad, live in the most desolate parts of a desolate nation, taking away opium fundamentally alters an economy largely built upon it. Many people cannot cope, eventually returning to poppy.

"Dramatic reductions in opium poppy cultivation are difficult to sustain because of their powerful negative impact on the welfare of households," according to a report on Nangarhar by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), a think tank in Kabul.

The eradication of poppy – the plant from which opium is derived – is of primary concern to the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan. Particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, opium trade is seen as a major factor in rampant lawlessness. US officials have said drug lords are in league with corrupt government officials and insurgents.

For this reason, on Oct. 10, NATO authorized their troops in Afghanistan to target drug traffickers who are facilitating the insurgency. Until now, foreign forces have resisted becoming involved in drug interdiction.

In this context, the news that the poppy harvest nationwide declined this year after two record years is significant. United Nations and US data agree that poppy cultivation dropped between 19 and 22 percent. But the UN says increases in yield meant overall production declined only 6 percent. By contrast, the US suggests there was an overall decline of 33 percent. Officials say the discrepancy could be the result of different data-collection and analysis techniques used.

They attribute the decline to a severe drought in many parts of Afghanistan, as well as a slow decline in opium prices. The rising prices of other crops – like wheat – could have a further impact next year.

In all, 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces have now been declared poppy-free by the UN, up from 15 last year. Nangarhar is one of them. Afghanistan's minister of counternarcotics, General Khodaidad, calls Nangarhar "the best model for Afghanistan."

Nangarhar's yo-yo success

But past experience casts doubt on how long its success will continue. A similar ban on poppy-growing in 2005 lasted two years before falling apart in 2007.

The collapse of that ban was a result of waning political will, as remote areas most dependent upon poppy – and in which the government had the least authority – returned to cultivation. It was a slippery slope that the rest of the province followed in 2007, according to the AREU report.

As the next poppy planting season begins, the signs from Ghani Khel are that this cycle could be starting again.

Last year, Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai staked his political reputation on the opium ban. "He was putting people in jail and getting out there to deliver the message," says Jonathan Greenham, director of Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), an aid organization in Nangarhar. "This year, he is not," he adds.

Part of Governor Sherzai's success was in cutting deals with tribal elders, promising development in return for compliance with the ban – a classic counternarcotics strategy. Yet in a country beset by corruption and controlled only tenuously by the government, such deals are hard to keep.

"We have been promised many things," says Mohammad Amin, a tribal elder in Ghani Khel. "Don't give us trouble by telling lies to us."

Standing beside parched and empty fields once teeming with poppy, he explains how the ban has affected his life. With corn, for example, he needs to water his field 12 times a season. Poppy needs only four waterings. Factoring in the diesel needed to pump the well for water, it cost him $3.40 to produce a bundle of corn. The price he received was $0.24.

This has a knock-on effect, according the AREU report. During the previous ban, day laborers needed to weed poppy fields lost $1,000 a season. Shopkeepers' turnover was halved. In short, the money that once fed the economy evaporated, and anger with the government grew.

"The international community says that growing poppy is crime against humanity," says tribal elder Mohammad. "Are we human, too?"

The Ministry of Counternarcotics is trying to intervene. It has allocated $10 million to the province as a reward for eradicating poppy. The money is earmarked for public works projects like dams and irrigation.

But Mehrajuddin, a local farmer who has replaced opium with okra, is doubtful. "[Officials] only talk to the head of the districts, and [district heads] only request projects that they are milking for their own profit," he says. "If a project should have 20 people, they will only hire 10 and the rest will go into their pockets – and those 10 people are relatives of the head of the district."

Mr. Greenham of DAI agrees that the people of Achin, Mohammad's district, "don't have much of an option but to grow poppy."

But to him, Achin and Ghani Khel are not the measure of Nangarhar's success. For five years, his organization and others have focused on building canals and roads in the lush lowland districts alongside the Kabul and Kunar rivers – helping local farmers grow and sell legal crops at a greater profit.

In the fight against opium, these districts are the most important because they are the most fertile, he says. He is confident that no matter what the governor does, many of these districts will not return to poppy, because they no longer need it to make money.

Kama District is among them, a thread of green amid the ocher tones of barren peaks. "Kama was one of the first districts that welcomed the decision that people should not grow poppy," says farmer Mohammad Saeed proudly.

He is sitting on a rope cot beside the paved 10-mile road that Greenham's DAI recently built at a cost of $1.4 million. The road has increased the money he makes selling tomatoes. It cut in half his transportation costs to the market in the main city of Jalalabad.

Greenham says: "Kama only grows poppy when law and order is lax."

In south, poppy-growing still easier

Law and order is the primary problem facing provinces like Helmand, Greenham adds. To get legal crops to market there, farmers often have to drive scores of miles, dealing with Taliban fighters and policemen at checkpoints who invariably demand bribes. The cost is such that it makes legal crops unprofitable.

By contrast, opium traffickers come to their farm gate to pick up poppy, and prices are generally good. Without security, developers don't have the space to begin to change that equation, as they have in Kama.

Instead, there, it is the Taliban who are building relationships with farmers. Says Khan Mohammad Mohmand, a coordinator with DAI: "The work we have been doing here for the past five years, the Taliban has been doing that work in Helmand."

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