Afghans follow cobblestone road away from drugs

In southern Helmand province, one of the main sources of the world’s opium and heroin, turbaned men fit stones into a cobbled road that is meant to lead them away from growing drugs.

Crouching, they peer up at a convoy of armoured vehicles and gun-toting American soldiers that rumbles along the first such road in southern Afghanistan, the most dangerous part of this violent land.

The partially built road, meant to provide an alternative livelihood for its workers and help wean farmers off opium crops, passes scruffy villages and the ruins of a mud-brick palace built about 1 000 years ago.

It ends at the ancient Qalai Bost arch—once a gateway into a capital of the 10th-century Ghaznavid Dynasty—which has the names of Western tourists from the 1960s, when Afghanistan was on the hippy trail, etched into its bricks.

Dozens of American troops stand sentry as United States ambassador Ronald E Neumann raises one of Afghanistan’s most pressing concerns today: rampant opium cultivation that many believe threatens to turn the fragile, battle-scarred country into a haven for terrorism.

Helmand last year produced at least a quarter of the more than 4 000 tonnes of opium that is smuggled from Afghanistan, often in high-speed convoys that race across the desert in the dead of night to Pakistan and Iran.

The opium then goes on to make about 90% of the heroin in Europe, experts say.

Insurgents

In Helmand, the drugs are inextricably tied up with insurgents linked to ousted Taliban government and its al-Qaeda allies, hence the urgency to slash the illicit trade.

The labour-intensive work on the cheap but durable road surface provides not only construction jobs, but also a route to market for farmers in the destitute province who find growing opium about 10 times more lucrative than growing cereals.

The road offers “immediate alternative sources of income to poor households whose livelihoods depend, directly or indirectly, on the opium economy”, says Holly Barnes from the US-funded Alternative Livelihoods Programme.

Another similar “cash for work” project involving thousands of men has cleaned out 2 200km of irrigation channels. Others being mooted are flour milling, and fruit and vegetable processing.

It is all about rebuilding the rural economy, shattered by more than two decades of war and a crippling six-year drought that broke in Helmand last year.

This is Neumann’s focus.
“We are dedicated to helping you establish an economy in which people are liberated from dependence on imports and released from the chains of poppy cultivation,” he tells dignitaries at the ancient arch.

Eradication effort

At Neumann’s side is Helmand Governor Mohammad Daud, who has vowed to rid his province of opium in two months despite threats from Taliban militants protecting farmers.

The eradication campaign started about two weeks ago when tractors were sent in to churn up fields of young opium plants, still without the bulbs from which the valuable resin is harvested.

Already there has been a clash: five Taliban were killed, Daud says. Police say one of their officers also died.

In the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, 8km away, Neumann stresses eradication is not enough.

“To really help people stay away from poppy, to help make this country a proper country again, we have to clean out the canals, roads have to be built [so] that the crops can go to market, electric power has to be provided so there can be factories ... It will take many years.”

Neumann admits later that eradication failed last year, partly because it started too late.

Only about 5 000ha of 104 000ha under cultivation across the land were destroyed, according to a report by the government and United Nations drugs office, which predict a spike in area planted this year.

“One of the results of almost no eradication was a lot more poppy planting this year because people decided it was low risk to grow poppy,” the ambassador says.

But Michael Koch, with the Central Asia Development Group also trying to get Helmand farmers off opium, says this year’s eradication should have started months ago, not just before harvest.

It will only anger residents, perhaps turning them to the Taliban, because time and capacity will only see some fields destroyed, allowing some farmers to profit and not others, he says.

“There is no way they are going to touch sides,” he says at a model farm in Lashkar Gah that is experimenting with possible poppy substitutes such as peppers and grapes.

Meanwhile, substitutes will take about five years to become viable, Koch says. With many farmers in debt, he says, “it’s desperate times”.

Bottom line

Money is the bottom line for 50-year-old Abdul Ghani, whose patch of opium flourishes at the edge of the model farm.

“It is not something to eat and we are not addicted it,” says the father of 12. “When we become able to support our families, we will stop growing poppy.”

For example, he says, 4,5kg of tomatoes will fetch five afghani (10 United States cents) at market; the same amount of opium goes for more than 8 000 afghani.

This argument does not wash with the US, by far the largest donor to Afghanistan’s anti-narcotics campaign and victim of the deadliest atrocity by the Taliban-sheltered al-Qaeda terror network—the September 11 2001 attacks.

“Opium is against the law. I could go out and make more money smuggling diamonds, but that doesn’t mean I am going to do it,” a US diplomat says.

“Farmers know that what they are doing is wrong ... that it threatens the stability of Afghanistan,” he says, estimating that 35% of the economy is tied into illicit drugs.

“Afghans recognise themselves that if they want to utilise this period of foreign help and involvement to build something that will not slide back into chaos, then they have to deal with this problem,” he says.—AFP

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