Saturday, July 05, 2008

Farmers caught in the poppy trade

By Kate Clark
BBC News, Afghanistan

Poppy field in Afghanistan
This year's poppy harvest was poor
Much of Afghanistan's Helmand Province is dependent on the poppy harvest - which locks ordinary people into a criminal economy and ends up funding Taleban insurgents, corrupt officials and drug traffickers.

"The Holy Koran hated our fields this year," was how one farmer from Helmand described just how bad the opium poppy harvest had been.

In May, farmers scraping the bulbous seed heads of their poppy plants, found low quantities of the milky white liquid that is opium dribbling out.

Bad weather, frosts and poor rains, meant the yield was way down.

The price of opium has also fallen, after years of bumper harvests flooding the market.

Taleban tax

After paying household and farming expenses, the farmer said, he had hardly broken even, especially after everyone else took their share, the labourers who helped with the harvest and the mullah who, in rural Afghanistan, is supported collectively by the congregation.

Helmund Province

Then there was the Taleban to pay. They take a tax, known as ushr, 10% of the harvest from farmers living in areas under their control.

It is a major revenue stream for the insurgency.

Finally - and these were the farmer's exact words - "the government takes away its share".

He was talking about local officials who demand bribes, in exchange for protecting fields from the yearly government campaign to eradicate some of the poppy crop.

These bribes can be sizeable. Last year, another farmer said, he and the 300 other families in his area collectively paid the equivalent of $50,000 (£25,000).

One farmer told us what happened when he did not pay the bribes.

It was 2007 and he had just got married. He had completed the legal ceremony, but was waiting for the harvest to pay the agreed dowry to the bride's father.

But the government eradication team chose to destroy his poppy fields.

He could not pay his father-in-law and so he could not take his wife home.

Missing wife

His story got worse. Taleban fighters took up positions in his village and fired missiles at Nato troops who retaliated with bombs dropped from the air.

Taleban (File pic)
The Taleban get much of their funding from the poppy trade

The villagers, he said, fled into the desert. By the time I met him, he had lost his crop, literally lost his wife - he did not know where she was - and he was living in a tent camp.

If the fighting diminished and he could get back to his land, he said, one year's poppy crop would solve all his problems.

Eighty per cent of households in Helmand are involved in growing poppies.

But it ties farmers into a criminal economy, one where their hard labour funds the Taleban insurgency, government corruption and lines the pockets of the drugs traffickers.

At the same time it is the one crop which allows people to survive in a war zone.

If there is fighting, you can always store your opium crop. It does not rot. It keeps its value.

There is always a demand for it. Buyers will come to your door.

Corruption claims

If you grow legal crops like fruit and vegetables, you have to contend with bad roads and chronic insecurity to get them to market and you need to get your crop past check points manned by corrupt police who tax loads so heavily, farmers say, it is hardly worth their while to grow them.

Taleban and officials are often mentioned in the same breath, with not much to chose between them

The police in Helmand have a reputation for bribe-taking, drug addiction and for being a major source of crime.

There are good officers among their ranks, but also allegations that some help run the drugs trade.

The ministry of the interior is currently overhauling the force, district by district, in an attempt to clean it up.

There is a new governor, with a good track record, who was refreshingly upbeat that he could run the province properly.

I also encountered the deputy minister for rural development, who was visiting from Kabul.

A lean, hard-working, chain-smoking man in smart embroidered salwar kameez tunic, he told me with energy and determination about his development plans for the province.

This year, there was also a concerted effort by the governor, the counter-narcotics ministry and their British colleagues to target the poppy fields not of the poorest, but of wealthy farmers, those who did not need to grow poppies to survive.

The eradication teams were even persuaded to destroy part of the crop of a big commander, a former police chief. It was unprecedented.

School's out

But on the ground, there remains deep scepticism about a state that behaves more often like a predator than a protector.

Taleban and officials are often mentioned in the same breath, with not much to chose between them, with the weariness of people trying to live between rival mafia gangs.

"Our village school is shut," one farmer said.

"We're not sure who closed it. The Taleban do shut down girls' schools and non-religious boys' schools, claiming they're un-Islamic.

"But the Taleban aren't present in our area," said the farmer.

"So maybe it was the government who closed the school after local officials stole the generator and the other equipment."


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