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Fragile success against Afghanistan's opium economy

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

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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"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."