Efforts to Curb Afghanistan Helmand Opium Show Promise

Poppy cultivation in Helmand province, Afghanistan’s opium capital, fell by more than 30 per cent this year – but what will next year bring?

By Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Helmand (ARR No. 339, 01-Oct-09)

As the autumn planting season for poppy approaches, Afghan farmers are weighing their options.

Last year, an aggressive campaign by the provincial government, coupled with a significant downturn in the price of opium, led many landowners to abandon their traditional, illegal crop for wheat.

Helmand, the undisputed opium capital of the world, showed an overall decrease of 33 per cent in poppy cultivation in 2009.

This year, Helmand governor Gulab Mangal has vowed to expand his so-called Food Zone programme, which distributes seeds, fertiliser and equipment to farmers in specific areas who grow wheat and other food crops rather than poppy.

“The Food Zone programme encouraged people not to grow poppy,” Mangal said. “It shows that seriousness, a regular plan and good management can have an effect. Poppy cultivation decreased by 33 per cent this year, and I am sure that by next year we will double that figure.”

Advisor to the governor Salim Zmaryal was similarly upbeat about the Food Zone.

“This project was based on popular demand,” he told IWPR. “We raised public awareness by talking to religious leaders and soliciting their opinion about the illegality of poppy. We also conducted a campaign through the media. In addition, we distributed seeds, and got serious about implementing the law. We punished smugglers and confiscated the tools needed for harvesting. We seized and burned opium. All of these measures contributed to the decrease.”

Funding for the programme was provided mainly by the United Kingdom, Zmaryal said.

“The UK allocated 12.9 million US dollars for the Food Zone,” he said. “But other countries helped as well. For instance, the United States will give us fruit saplings for 1,000 hectares of land.”

The programme was so successful that Helmand exported 4,000 tonnes of wheat to other provinces this year, he added – all the more remarkable because Helmand had always been a net importer of grain.

The fight against opium poppy in Helmand has been a long and difficult one, with uneven results. Afghanistan’s largest province, and one which suffers from a vigorous insurgency, Helmand alone produces half of the world’s opium. Much of the land under cultivation is in areas controlled by the Taleban and other insurgent groups; still more is protected by corrupt police or government officials.

From 2004 to 2009, poppy cultivation more than tripled, reaching a peak in 2008 with over 103,000 hectares planted. This year, for the first time, that area has shrunk, according to a report issued in September by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC. In 2009, Helmand planted about 70,000 hectares – a fall of 33 per cent. Production of opium declined by 24 per cent to just over 4,000 tonnes in 2009 from nearly 5,400 in 2008.

While Afghan government officials are more than happy to claim the credit for the sharp decline, the UN points out that market factors also played a significant role. The price of opium has taken a nosedive due to overproduction in recent years. A kilogramme of fresh opium in 2009 fetches just 48 dollars, or a little over one-third of what it cost just two years ago.

Faced with the risks and headaches of poppy versus the shrinking rewards, many farmers simply decided to switch to wheat or other crops.

“We are not going to cultivate poppy anymore,” said Bismillah, a resident of Nad Ali. “It has made us poor. We don’t have wheat or hay for our animals because we grew poppy.”

Some people say they have benefited little from the Food Zone.

“The government gave us nothing,” said Abdul Bari, a resident of Chaimirza village in Nad Ali district. “We spoke with the government’s representative, but he told us that we were too late in requesting assistance. So we grew poppy. We are just as strong as the government. We harvested our fields and nobody interfered. I collected 140 kg, and I will plant it again this year. It is like cash, I can sell it whenever I want to.”

Abdul Bari may well qualify for assistance next year, however. The governor insisted that the Food Zone programme would be extended in the coming season.

“Last year, we gave seeds and fertiliser to 32,000 farmers,” Mangal said. “This year, we will expand that to 40,000 farmers.”

Sher Agha, a farmer in Nawa district, thinks the Food Zone programme is a great idea, but nevertheless chose to stay with poppy.

“I am not happy to grow poppy, but what else can I do?” he said. “Other crops do not bring in as much income. Opium might be cheap at the moment, but the price will go up later. There is good money in opium. They gave us wheat last year, but we stuck with poppy. When the eradication team came to our village, we gave them 400,000 Pakistani rupees (about 4,800 dollars), and saved our crop. We are still thinking about what to do this year – we have not yet made a decision.”

The Food Zone programme is also under attack from those who complain of corruption in the allocation of resources. This is hardly surprising in Afghanistan, designated the fifth most corrupt country in the world according the Transparency International’s annual index. Still, it is an important factor when weighing the support of the population for the government’s anti-poppy efforts.

“This multi-million dollar project is going into the pockets of a very small number of people,” said Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a tribal leader in Helmand. “I am critical of it for many reasons. First, they promised to distribute high-quality fertiliser, which costs 700 rupees (8.50 dollars) per sack. Instead, they are giving out an inferior product, which you can buy in the market for 400 rupees.

“In addition, some members of the staff of the governor’s office and district officials from Nad Ali have a share in this process. They have stocked hundreds of sacks of fertiliser for themselves. This is just the same as four years ago, when there was a project to pay farmers not to grow poppy. Most of the money went to people inside the process, who had never grown one jerib of poppy, but received thousands of dollars. This process is also corrupt.”

Surgul, a farmer in Nad Ali, agrees.

“At the beginning we thought they were giving us wheat and fertiliser for free,” he said. “Now they are asking us for money – 700 afghani (14 dollars) per kg. We don’t have even seven afghani. We have to buy our food from the shops on credit. There is no money in the districts. People are poor. This programme is giving wheat and fertiliser to people with close relations to the governor’s office, or it goes to the staff of the local government.”

Mangal insisted that his office maintained a firm grip on resources, and that corruption and bribery had been controlled.

His deputy, Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, attributed the griping to enemies of Afghanistan.

“We are fighting terrorism,” he said. “Helmand is a province riddled with terrorists. Drug smugglers and those who benefit from poppy do not want this [Food Zone] programme to be successful; they just want to sabotage it. We are not spending a penny on this programme – all the money is coming from the United Kingdom. The PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) is responsible for all the expenses. This is a good opportunity for people. Today the world is trying to get rid of poppy.”

Meanwhile, the government is trying to crack down on farmers who do grow poppy.

“We want to meet with the district governors soon so that they take this issue seriously,” Mangal said. “They should tell the people that anyone who cultivates poppy will be arrested and imprisoned and his equipment will also be taken from him.

“The person arrested will not be released until his fields have been planted with something other than poppy.”

Another positive development in the fight against poppy, according to residents, has been the increased US military presence in Helmand.

In the past, those living in Taleban-controlled areas were able to cultivate poppy in relative peace; but following Operation Khanjar, a US-led offensive in July of this year that cleared the Taleban out of several southern districts, some farmers may choose not to risk growing the illegal crop.

“We may not be able to grow poppy at all this year, since the government is back in control of Nawa,” said Mohammad Jan, a farmer in Kharabay village in Nawa district. “If we grow it, they will destroy it. Last year, one of our relatives lost his poppy fields just at harvest time, when he had begun to scrape the poppies. It was very difficult for him – at that time of year, poppy is more precious than one’s own son. I am going to grow wheat this year. It would not be fair to accept government assistance and still grow poppy.”

The practice of eradicating poppy in the spring, when farmers have invested time and money in bringing the crop to maturity, has riled many landowners.

“In Afghanistan, you have to force people, or they will never listen to you,” said another resident of Nawa, Noor Mohammad. “The government should first arrest and imprison me. They should tell me in prison to stop growing poppy. They do not do this. Instead, they come and destroy my fields when I have already gone through the hard times. They tell me poppy is illegal. The government should help me. If it does not, I will never listen, not even to the president.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.