Pubdate:  Mon, 26 Jan 2004
Source: Inter Press Service (Wire)
Copyright: 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service
Author: Fida Hussein

Since U.S. War, Afghans Back in Opium Biz

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

As in other parts of the country, farmers here plow 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 laborer, 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 center 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 require less water and labor, according to the report. And poppies 
tolerate bad weather and drought better than 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 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 per year, about 
one-third of the worldwide annual proceeds from trade in narcotics, 
estimated by the United Nations at around $500 billion.

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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom