Without opium, Afghan farmers see little hope of living
A television, a video-recorder, a new roof, new house, new car, education for five children, without opium, such things are mere dreams for farmers in remote northeast Afghanistan who see little hope for a better life without the black gold.
“I have a house, other farmers have a car, and since we began to grow opium everything has changed. I can send my children to school,” said Basir, a turbaned farmer in his 40s standing in the middle of his fields of illicit poppy plants, which bear the raw ingredient for heroin.
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the world’s leading supplier of illicit opium, morphine and heroin, is expected to jump by 40 percent this year, according a US State Department estimate released Thursday.
According to farmers in Baharak, a district in mountainous Badakhshan province, as increasing numbers of people take up poppy cultivation, farmers are having to plant yet more of the crop to make a good living.
“In the beginning you could just plant a couple of rows of opium and make good money, now you need to plant a field,” said a Badakshan farmer, who did not want to be named.
Pointing to his peach and apple orchards and fields of wheat, he showed the blight on the fruit.
“Everything is diseased. All of our trees, our plants are sick but the government gives us no fertiliser, no pesticides, seeds or equipment. Perhaps if we had that, farmers could grow something else.
The yields farmers can make on opium compared with wheat or rice are stratospheric. There is little incentive to grow anything else as law enforcement is poor and hundreds of senior officials are allegedly involved in the multi-billion-dollar drug business themselves.
According to the governor, farmers stand to make only 5,000 Afghanis (35 dollars) from planting half an acre with wheat or rice, but 10 times that amount for harvesting opium.
Ikramuddin said local farmers could trade the poppy business for growing legal crops or work in reconstruction projects in the poverty-stricken province.
But four hours drive away from the provincial capital Faizabad, farmers said there were few alternatives to opium cultivation and no government help for growing other crops.
An Afghan aid worker for a European organisation in Baharak district said opium was appealing not just because it was lucrative.
“People grow opium here because they can make oil, the stalks can be used for firewood in winter, they can make soap to wash their hands and they can make hundreds of dollars for traffic in heroin,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
Heroin processing factories have sprung up across the province in the past 18 months as the trade has become more sophisticated.
Although the border with neighbouring Tajikistan tightened its controls eight months ago, it has made little difference for local growers.
“It’s not very different for us. It’s harder for the traders coming from Kandahar to sell to Pakistan because they have to give more money to people on checkpoints,” he said.
In the bazaars of Badakshan’s dirt-road towns, opium is traded freely. afp