Afghan poppies may bloom again

With the Taliban gone, farmers are returning to the most lucrative crop.

It is planting season in eastern Afghanistan, and a sharecropper named Katib is riding behind two oxen pulling a wooden plow, preparing his field for next year's crop.

A few weeks ago, Katib (who uses only one name) had been planning to plant wheat. But now that the Taliban have gone, and their drugs ban with them, he has changed his mind. He is going back to opium poppies, which will earn him 15 times more money.

"The Taliban told us not to cultivate poppies, so I stopped," says the gray-bearded father of nine. "Absolutely we were forced to stop, and we were sorry about this. I don't especially like growing poppies, but I was worried about getting food for my stomach."

The fall of the Taliban - almost universally welcomed here - is bad news for international drug controllers who fear the change of government in Kabul will bring a new flood of raw opium and its processed form, heroin, onto world markets.

"The most likely scenario is replanting" of poppies, predicts Thomas Pietschmann, a researcher at the Vienna-based United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCC). "The chances of getting rid of opium completely were better before Sept. 11th."

A short-lived victory

International drug officials had been pleasantly surprised by the success of the Taliban's ban on opium production. The authorities slashed production this year by 94 percent, according to surveys by the ODCC.

"It was seen as a historic breakthrough in international drug control," says Kamal Kurspahic, the UN agency's spokesman. "Afghanistan traditionally produced 75 percent of the world's opiates, and cutting that out meant we were on the way to real elimination."

Prices reflected that change. A kilo of raw opium that had cost $30 at the time of the 2000 harvest cost $300 this year, and as stockpiles dwindled, the price rose to $700 in early September.

After Sept. 11, however, prices crashed to $90 as dealers unloaded their stocks to hold cash in the face of the coming crisis.

With the planting season under way, many farmers in Nangarhar province, a traditional center of the opium trade, are returning to a crop that has always offered them more financial security, even though most devout Muslim Afghans wouldn't touch the stuff themselves.

(Some Afghans say the Taliban themselves earned money from the opium trade, from the Islamic system of taxation of farmers called zaqat. Under zaqat, Islamic rulers earn 1/40th of the value of whatever crop is planted. Some rogue officials are also rumored to have been directly involved in the stockpiling and sale of opium, earning an estimated $30 million a year.)

Nonetheles, the new authorities are unlikely to try to do much to discourage farmers from returning to widespread poppy cultivation, say experts here.

"You will never find people who will ban poppies like the Taliban did," says Shamsul Haq, a drug-control officer from nearby Jalalabad who has worked with both mujahadeen and Taliban governments. "It was unbelievable ... but I don't think it will happen again under the new government."

Mujahideen officials dispute this. "One hundred percent we will control opium planting, and we will not let it occur," says Hazrat Ali, the mujahideen's new law-and-order minister for Nangarhar province. "Not all people in the drug trade are necessarily making money. They are wanting to get out of this business."

But the mujahideen's track record is not convincing. Warlords have always funded their fiefdoms through opium sales, and this year, while the Taliban was almost eliminating poppy cultivation in the areas they controlled, the Northern Alliance authorities allowed a threefold increase in poppy growing in their small zone.

Ultimately, they accounted for more than 83 percent of all the land under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, according to ODCC figures.

Even if many of the men likely to form the next Afghan government have been deeply involved in the drug trade, says Mohammed-Reza Amirkhizi, an Afghanistan specialist with the ODCC, the rest of the world now has some leverage on them.

"I am sure that the new Afghan government would expect substantial assistance from the international community, and we should not be shy about setting our conditions" for such aid, Mr. Amirkhizi argues.

Creating new incentives

In a resolution last week, the UN security council called on the future authorities to "cooperate fully in international efforst to combat terrorism and illicit drug trafficking."

But the future of opium production does not depend only on the Afghan authorities, experts say. Farmers must be helped to grow legal but less lucrative crops, and to find new ways of making money.

The United States, along with Iran, was one of the first countries to fund such projects - launched last summer by international aid organizations with Taliban support. They have since collapsed, in the absence of foreign aid workers who fled the country and for lack of cash, but they must be restored if poppy production is to be kept under control.

"The international community must support programs to help farmers produce licit crops," Mr. Amirkhiz insists. "Without supporting farmers, we won't be successful. They do it because they are poor and opium is a source of cash, and if we don't address the farmers' needs, I don't think the authorities could impose a sustained policy" against drug production.

"Ninety percent of the people depend on poppies, from laborers and farmers to sharecroppers, traders, traffickers, and big buyers," adds Mr Haq, the local drug-control officer. "There is nothing else in the country, no factories, no industry. This is the only income for people.

"This year's season will be a big harvest," he predicts.

Staff writer Peter Ford contributed to this report from Paris.

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