Afghan Farmers Feel Pinch of Poppy Eradication

For the last two years he has grown no poppy, and his family have begun to feel the pinch. This year, this farmer from Nangahar province in Afghanistan plans to resume poppy cultivation.

And not just he but thousands of others, and not just in Nangahar province but beyond. As Britain leads the Western push to launch forced eradication of opium, the farmers seem to be planning just the opposite.

The confrontation can build up into a war with long-term consequences. On the one hand, Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, which is then processed into heroin and finds its way to an ever growing number of addicts around the world. On the other, forced eradication of poppy crops threatens the livelihood of more than 2 million farmer families.

"Over the past two years, whenever anyone in our province tried to grow poppy, they raided farmers’ homes and fields and put them into prison," a farmer told IPS. He was in London on the invitation of the drug policy think tank The Senlis Council. He and three other farmers had been invited to London in time for the international donors’ conference, but were given visas in time only to arrive after that conference had ended.

The Council is advocating continued cultivation of poppy, which yields opium, but use of this for production of the medicinal drugs morphine and codeine.

The farmer said the government was not following a consistent policy. "While they took action in Nangahar, nobody took any action against farmers growing poppy in many of the northern provinces," said the farmer, who cannot be named in order to ensure legal protection for him. "Why are they emphasizing some areas and not others?"

Now the Nangahar farmers and many in other provinces are planning to defy the government and international forces, he said.

"Everybody has decided that even if government airplanes come and bomb us, we will cultivate poppy because we have no choice," he said. "Two years back, they promised us financial support, but none came. We are prepared to be killed, but we will grow the poppy because there is nothing else we can do. And if we die, it is the will of Allah."

Farmers throughout the region had decided together that "they need to defend themselves because the government is using violence against us," he said. "And we will defend ourselves, no matter what it takes. If they attack us, then we will attack them."

But were farmers not aware that their produce leads to heroin production, which is destroying lives around the world?

"Once we sell our produce, we do not know what happens with it," he said. "We are being accused of something we have no part in."

Farmers do not have a substitute, he said. "We also grow wheat and corn, but for cultivation of those you need a lot of water, which is not easy to get. Poppy, on the other hand, grows on its own and needs very little water."

The yield from poppy is inevitably better. "Poppy cultivation in one jirib [a jirib is a fifth of a hectare] brings us about $6,000 a year," he said. "But wheat fetches a price only of one or two dollars for every seven kilograms." A jirib would produce about 700kg through a season, which means an income of a thousand dollars at most – after the higher expense of cultivating wheat or corn.

Farmers are now returning to poppy cultivation "because this crop does not go back a few years, it has been grown on this land for centuries," he said. "During the time of the kings many districts were given permission to cultivate poppy."

Most farmers have only small holding of one to three jiribs, he said. Within that they also grow wheat and corn because they need to feed their families and their cattle. But in the new confrontation, farmers are going only to increase the land under poppy cultivation, he said. "This year the poppy crop yield will probably be very high," he said.

Over the last couple of years when poppy could not be grown, he said, "families have not been able to give their children even one bit of meat in a month. They have been living on just bread. It is better to die than to live a life like this."

The Afghan government headed by President Hamid Karzai is indifferent to the plight of farmers, he said. "In one case a home was raided at three in the night, and these troops entered the women’s rooms when they were not dressed to receive visitors. Whatever the legal position, this is a matter of shame for any family."

Groups of the village protested, but at a meeting with Karzai, "he asked us who these people were who carried out the raid. He is president only on radio and television."

If such conditions continue, he said, "The hands of the Taliban will automatically get strengthened."

Read more by Sanjay Suri