'If we don't grow opium, we will die'

In the arid fields of southern Afghanistan, farmers in rags tend to green shoots pushing up through the brown earth: the precious crop is opium, illegal and considered against Islam.

But, the men explain, they have no choice. “Without opium, we wouldn’t be able to feed our families,” says one.

Leaning on his spade in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province—the main producer of Afghanistan’s opium—50-year-old Gul Mohammed rails against the largely unsuccessful drive to eradicate opium poppies.

The campaign was launched by the government that replaced the Taliban regime, which managed to slash opium production just before its ouster four years ago, and is pushed by the administration’s international backers, mainly the United States and Britain.

“Nothing has changed for us in four years,” says Mohammed, who has a white beard and a black turban. “If I don’t grow opium, my children will die of hunger because we have had no help from the government.”

Other farmers standing with him agree and insist they will ignore the government’s calls for them to turn to other crops, such as vegetables and wheat.

After slipping last year, the production of Afghan opium is expected to climb again this year unless the government steps up its eradication campaign, according to the latest report by the government and the United Nations’s drugs office.

In Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, the new Governor, Daoud Mohammed, promised this month to eradicate all the opium in the province within two months.

The campaign started on Wednesday when troops and about 1 500 police officers started ploughing up poppy fields in Helmand’s Dishu district.

The eradication drive, which experts deem unachievable in the province that last year produced a quarter of Afghanistan’s about 4 100 tonnes of opium, will eventually be assisted by British soldiers due to deploy to Helmand in the coming weeks.

The threat of eradication has not deterred the province’s destitute farmers, some of whom have already suffered under the policy, and even though it would mean financial ruin.

According to the UN and government report, at harvest time in May the farmers will earn 10 times more than had they planted cereals, for example.

“They made us cut our opium last year and they gave us nothing in return,” says Shah Mohammed (45) in Nad Ali.
“If they gave me work, I would do something else. But there is nothing and I have a family of 20 to feed. I grow opium because I don’t have a choice.

“They can come with their tractors and try but we will not let them do anything.”

Adds 65-year-old Mohammed Siddiq: “If we don’t grow opium, we will die.”

Into this mix is the threat from drug traffickers who appear to have linked up with Taliban rebels.

The men say anonymous letters have been dropped off at the doors of farmers in several districts telling them to push up opium production or face reprisals.

“The Taliban and the traffickers work together because they have a common interest in destabilising the province, the first to discredit the state and the second to promote their own business,” says Nad Ali district security chief Haji Mohammed Qasem.

“In the district, 90% of agriculture involves opium and the Taliban push the farmers, who are very poor and in debt and who have no choice, to grow opium,” he says.

Last year, violence between farmers, perhaps bolstered by Taliban support, and anti-narcotics police led the government to suspend eradication in the neighbouring province of Kandahar.

Nad Ali district deputy chief Abdul Ali concedes that farmers in his area will become “enraged if anyone tries to destroy their field”.

He doesn’t see the threat of violence scuppering the whole eradication drive in Helmand.

“But we have no doubt there will be some bombs because the security situation worsens every day in the region,” he says.—AFP

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