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AFGHANISTAN: Farmers in the midst of poppy cultivation dilemma

JALALABAD, 31 December 2008 (IRIN) - Farmers in Nangarhar Province, eastern Afghanistan, have been told by Taliban insurgents to grow poppy, but the government has warned them not to.

"They [the insurgents] threatened me with punishment if I don't grow opium poppy," Mohammad, a farmer in Nangarhar's Khogyani District, told IRIN.

Photo: Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN
Afghan farmers in the midst of poppy cultivation dilemma - insurgents force them to cultivate poppy while the government warns them not to

"We are told to do jihad against the Americans by opium... The Taliban even assured us that they will protect our poppy fields," Golam Hussain, another farmer, said.

The crop is illegal in the country and the government, which forcefully eradicates poppy fields, can imprison farmers for cultivating it.

The insurgents have issued similar orders in other districts across the province, which shares a long border with Pakistan, counter-narcotics officials said.

"Through poppy cultivation, the Taliban aim to promote illegal actions, create friction between the government and farmers and destabilise the country," Golam Faroq Hemat, the administrator of Khogyani District, told IRIN on 24 December.

Provincial counter-narcotics officials have said tens of farmers who had cultivated poppy in November have been arrested and their fields will be destroyed.

In the southern province of Helmand, Afghanistan's premier opium producing province, farmers conceded they were encouraged - but not coerced - by the insurgents to grow poppy instead of wheat and other crops.

"The Taliban tell us if it's beneficial to us and helps our economy, then we should grow poppy... They never say it's illegal or bad to produce opium," Hamidullah, a farmer in Helmand, said.

Photo: Salih/IRIN
Afghanistan has been producing over 90 percent of the heroin and opiates consumed across the world, according to UNODC

A passive stance?

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says Afghanistan has been the single largest opium and heroin exporter in the world for several consecutive years.

The country produced 7,700 tones of opium in 2008 with an estimated farm-gate value of US$70 million and a potential export value of $3.4 billion.

Estimates made by UNODC indicate, the insurgents and other criminal groups earned about $500 million from Afghan opium income in 2008.

Consequently, "the insurgents' war machine has proven so resilient, despite the heavy pounding by Afghan and allied forces", the Vienna-based UN body said in a report titled Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008.

The UNODC report said the insurgents would adopt a "passive" stance towards opium production and may even support a reduction in cultivation.

"The Taliban are holding major drug stockpiles," Antonio Maria Costa, UNODC's executive director, wrote in a commentary in the survey, adding a reduction in cultivation could increase prices to the interest of stockpile holders.

However, Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman in the east, said they were not involved in the opium trade.

"Poppy is a haram [illegitimate] crop and we have never coerced people to cultivate," he told IRIN on the phone from an unidentified location.

The Taliban had imposed a strict ban on poppy cultivation in 2000 in areas under their control, which caused a significant drop in opium production.

Some experts say the Taliban's ban in 2000 was aimed to inflate prices so that they could sell stockpiled opium at higher prices.

False promises


Photo: UNODC
Afghan farmer weighing opium paste
Poppy cultivation has seen a 19 percent reduction in 2008 and the trend may continue in 2009, according to UNODC's assessments.

The reduction has been a result of "successful counter-narcotic efforts" by the government and "unfavourable weather" in some areas, the UNODC said.

However, experts at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), say the reduction in poppy cultivation is largely due to economic (high wheat prices) and environmental (drought) factors, rather than counter-narcotics.

The AREU has also questioned the government's claim that it rewards poppy-free provinces under donors-backed developmental scheme called the "Good Performance Initiative".

"These sharp declines in cultivation have been achieved through coercion and false promises for development," states the AREU's study, which was released in December.

David Mansfield and Adam Pain, authors of the AREU study, argue that sudden reductions in poppy cultivation in 2008 are unsustainable and must not be relied upon as a viable success.

"Counter-narcotics needs to be integrated within the wider process of state building and economic development, and not treated as a parallel policy or strand of activity," states the study, titled Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan: The Failure of Success?

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2009

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