Afghan Reconstruction Hinges on Opium Poppy

Poppies, from the milky sap of which opium and heroin are derived, represent a lifeline for Afghan families and day labourers around this border crossing with Pakistan.

As in other parts of the country, farmers here plough their earnings from poppy cultivation into rebuilding their homes, buying livestock, and re-establishing communities devastated by war. Many growers say they see no real substitute crop for poppy, which they regard as the only sure way to feed, clothe and shelter their families.

”For us Poppy is good, for the West it may not be,” says Gul, an Afghan farmer who declines to use his full name.

Riding a bus bound for Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, he says he knows the drug has ravaging effects on its users and their communities. ”But,” he says, ”it serves us well.”

”What else can we do? We are pushed against the wall. This is the only way to ensure our security in food and shelter. It is the only crop that enables us to arrange marriages in the family,” says Gul, a resident of Ghani Khel, a settlement five kilometers away from the border with Pakistan and a well-known marketplace for opium and other narcotics.

Afghans who fled to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and eked out a living as labourers in brick kilns now are returning to their homeland, drawn by the prospect of earning a better livelihood tending poppy fields in eastern Afghanistan. Many say their prospects appear to have been buoyed by an Afghan government uninterested in or unable to eradicate or control poppy cultivation. Opium remains one of the country’s main exports.

One Afghan labourer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says: ”I can earn five times higher than what I earned working in Pakistan,” which remains home to millions of Afghan refugees.

More than half a million Afghans are thought to have returned to their home country after the Taliban regime’s ouster in late 2001.

Poppy production has rebounded following the Taliban’s departure, reconfirming Afghanistan as a leading centre in the global trade in illicit narcotics. Afghanistan has produced some 3,400 metric tons of opium in the past three years, according to a recent United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report.

Poppies generate about eight times as much income per hectare than wheat and requires less water and labour, according to the report. And poppies tolerate bad weather and drought better than do food crops.

The higher returns represent a lifeline for smallholders, on many of whom extended families of between 15 and 25 people rely for support.

”I hold just 2.5 hectares of land in Ghani Khel,” says another farmer. ”The landscape is such that I cannot run modern agricultural machinery as the fields are divided in small portions.

”My 2.5 hectares of land earns me around 8,400 dollars a year if the opium production remains at 14 kilograms per hectare with a price of around 240 dollars per kilo. But production per hectare sometimes reaches 20 kilos. No other crop can really give me that kind of money.”

In 2000, the Taliban government banned opium production under advice from the U.N. Drug Control Program (UNDCP). Before the ban, Afghanistan produced more than 70 percent of the world’s opium in 2000 and about 80 percent of the white heroin sold in Europe, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

After the ban was imposed, according to U.N. experts, opium production shriveled by more than 90 percent.

But in 2002, they say, opium cultivation increased by 657 percent over the previous year.

Afghanistan’s production generates 100-200 billion dollars peryear, about one-third of the worldwide annual proceeds from trade in narcotics, estimated by the United Nations at around 500 billion dollars.

Even so, only a portion of Afghanistan’s production makes it to market as huge surpluses are being built up. ”Enough opium stocks are available here. I could not sell last year’s stock,” says one Afghan drug dealer. He declined to provide further details.