Helping the Drug Farmers

Afghanistan and Colombia, half a world apart and different in culture and politics, have a common dilemma: how to wean poor farmers off the narcotics crops that feed the habits of addicts, mainly in Europe and the US.

Farmers in both war-torn nations have recently become the focus of renewed effort by European nations and the US to curb the flow of Afghan heroin and Colombian cocaine. But these drug-consuming countries need to do more.

Under pressure from the West, the interim Afghan government early this year banned the cultivation of opium poppies, from which heroin is derived. That was after Afghan farmers, freed of the Taliban and its ban on the poppy crop, had already planted.

Afghan authorities now have to eradicate thousands of acres of poppies ready to yield the opium paste that pays farmers many times what the government is offering them in compensation. Moreover, the compensation often isn't right at hand, as promised. And farmers are hard put to come up with an alternative to poppies that will support their families.

President Bush's plan to uplift the Afghan economy, if funded by Congress, will give farmers hope of economic alternatives to growing poppies, as well as keep Afghanistan from again being a home to terrorists.

The Afghans' plight would sound familiar to farmers in the coca-growing regions of Colombia. There, too, the government, along with billions from Europe and the US, has tried to give growers an incentive to change crops. But alternative crops like yuca or rice sell for much less and are harder to get to market than coca, whose buyers come right to the farmers' doors to buy and collect the harvest. Thousands of acres of coca have been sprayed with herbicides, but most get replanted.

Moreover, both leftist rebels and right-wing militias profit from the coca trade and pressure farmers to keep producing the drug. In Afghanistan, too, powerful warlords want the drug cultivation to continue.

Clearly, the forces keeping farmers in the narcotics business have to be countered by strong incentives to quit. Directing farmers to new livelihoods is as complex as reducing the demand for drugs. Afghanistan and Colombia still need help in finding the best alternative crops, improving their transportation systems, and putting an end to the conflicts that drive farmers to grow illegal crops just for survival.

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