HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Poppy Farming Declines In Afghanistan
Pubdate: Wed, 09 Feb 2005
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2005 San Jose Mercury News
Author: N.C. Aizenman, Washington Post
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Apparent Success Creates Challenges For Country's Poor

GIRDI GHOUS, Afghanistan - Shah Mahmoud smiled ruefully as he surveyed the 
snow-speckled fields stretching beyond the mud walls of his village. In 
drought-plagued Nangarhar province, a rare snowfall would normally augur a 
bumper crop for the many opium-poppy farmers among his people. But on acre 
after acre, the green shoots poking through the soil were not fat poppy 
buds but delicate sprigs of wheat.

"I made the decision this season that it would be forbidden to plant 
poppy," said Mahmoud, whose edicts as the area's traditional chief, or 
malek, carry more weight with the 30,000 members of his community than any 
government law. "So none of us did. Now I'm not so happy about that."

Across Afghanistan, government officials and foreign aid workers who 
monitor poppy cultivation have reached a remarkable conclusion: One year 
after Afghan farmers planted the largest amount of poppies in their 
nation's history and provided the world with nearly 90 percent of its opium 
supply, many of them have stopped growing it.

Poppy farming, officials said, may have declined by as much as 70 percent 
in three provinces that together account for more than half of 
Afghanistan's production: Nangarhar in the east, Helmand in the south and 
Badakhshan in the north.

In Nangarhar, where last spring poppies bloomed all along the main road 
from the provincial capital, Jalalabad, to the Pakistani border, the 
contrast today is striking.

"I visited 16 out of 22 districts and I couldn't find a single plant of 
poppy," marveled Mirwais Yasini, head of the Afghan government's 
counternarcotics directorate. "It was all wheat."

Several factors may be responsible, including a drop in opium prices after 
the previous banner harvest, and a reluctance to plant among farmers whose 
crops were destroyed last season by disease or the police.

Afghan officials, however, say the news vindicates President Hamid Karzai's 
decision to reject an anti-poppy aerial-spraying campaign, which had been 
promoted by the U.S. government, in favor of a more consensus-based "Afghan 

Karzai voiced concerns that spraying would cause health and environmental 
problems and antagonize farmers; several foreign non-profit aid groups here 
also opposed the idea. Instead, the president used appeals to national and 
religious pride, the promise of international aid and the threat of crop 
destruction to persuade hundreds of village and tribal leaders such as 
Mahmoud to curb poppy cultivation voluntarily.

Yet the very success of this new policy also creates tremendous challenges 
in a nation where opium cultivation and trafficking made up more than 
one-third of the economy last year and sustained many thousands of poor 
rural families.

"People will need other sources of income as soon as possible, or we'll be 
the witness to a big disaster," said Gen. Muhammad Daoud, deputy interior 
minister in charge of counternarcotics.

U.S. military officials said they plan to conduct aerial surveillance soon 
to verify reports that poppy crops have been reduced. In December, the top 
commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, reportedly warned visiting 
officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary 
Donald Rumsfeld, that drug lords were expanding their influence in the 
Afghan government and could form ties with Taliban fighters.

But Col. David Lamm, chief of staff for the U.S. military command in 
Afghanistan, said he was optimistic that Kabul's assertions of progress in 
reducing poppy production would prove true. "Can you put it under your 
mattress and let the price go up? Yes," he said, but he added that because 
Karzai told farmers not to plant, "they are not planting."

International donors have pledged millions of dollars to help Afghanistan 
combat drugs this year; the United States pledged about $780 million. About 
$120 million of the U.S. assistance package has been earmarked for work on 
irrigation canals, to improve roads, to create micro-credit systems, and to 
obtain better seeds and fertilizers so poppy workers can make a living from 
other crops and industries.

In Nangarhar, the first phase of that effort has already begun, with plans 
to hire about 50,000 workers to do jobs such as clearing irrigation canals.

But it will take until at least early spring to start up more lasting 
infrastructure improvements, U.S. officials said. Also, while aid workers 
stress that such programs are not intended to compensate individual farmers 
who gave up their poppy crops, local leaders such as Mahmoud see it that way.

A tall man in his 60s, Mahmoud has the regal bearing of a leader whose 
title has been passed down through generations. If enough aid does not 
arrive by the start of the planting cycle next fall, he warned, he may not 
have enough clout to stop growers from switching back.

"The farmers will grab my collar and say, 'You said that we could get aid 
for not growing poppy and we got nothing!' " Mahmoud predicted. "Then even 
I will not be able to stop them from growing poppy again."

Mahmoud said he learned of Karzai's new anti-drug strategy in December when 
he tuned a dusty television set to watch the inaugural address. Karzai, who 
was elected Oct. 9 after serving as interim president for nearly three 
years, called for a "holy war" against the drug trade, which Afghan 
religious leaders have also declared un-Islamic.

Shortly afterward, Mahmoud and more than 40 other tribal and village 
leaders in Nangarhar received invitations to meetings about anti-drug 
efforts with provincial officials, several national ministries and 
representatives of the British and U.S. governments.

The purpose was to make clear that the government had the means and the 
determination to crack down on poppy cultivation, said Ghous, head of 
counternarcotics for Nangarhar police.

"We told them that the central government is serious -- that if you grow 
poppy, the government will get rid of it by force," recalled Ghous, who 
like many Afghans uses only one name.

The community leaders also heard presentations by aid workers about plans 
for development and assistance projects. Then they were asked to discuss 
among themselves whether they could pledge to stop growing poppies in their 
areas. Mahmoud said he struggled with the decision.

"As far back as I can remember, the people in this village have always 
grown poppy," he said. The reason is simple: Opium harvested from poppy 
fetches 10 to 20 times the price of legal crops such as wheat.

Mahmoud said he agreed to the voluntary crop reduction, in part because he 
feared a more aggressive effort to eradicate the crop would lead to violent 
clashes with farmers, and in part because he was convinced that the aid 
officials he met would follow through on their promises. But mostly, he 
said, it was because he did not want to bring shame on Karzai, for whom he 
voted, and his new government.

"The international community has its eyes on Afghanistan now," he said. "I 
don't want us to have a bad reputation."
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