Friday, April 28, 2006

Farmers Fight Ban on Poppy Growing

Inter Press Service News Agency
Farmers Fight Ban on Poppy Growing
Ahmad Ihsan Sarwaryar, Nadeem Kohistani and Zubair Babakarkhel - Pajhwok Afghan News*

KABUL, Apr 25 (IPS) - Agitated poppy farmers in western Herat province say they will not destroy their crops unless the Afghan government provides them with alternative sources of income.

''I will not stop growing poppy despite the ban by the government because I've no other source of livelihood,'' asserted Ghulam Sakhi, 45, from the Nahr-i-Farhad area of Rabat Sangi district. ''They (the government) should first kill me and 12 members of my family before they destroy my farms,'' he added.

The protesting farmer was addressing the provincial governor, Said Hussain Anwari and the police chief, who were touring the area, inspecting a poppy eradication campaign that was underway.

Security forces had manually flattened over 800 acres of poppy fields in Herat province just three weeks before farmers were due to harvest the opium -- the raw material for the production of heroin.

Sakhi accused counter-narcotics officials of putting up a show before the governor and police chief. Only poor growers have been targeted while the government has spared all those with influence, he charged.

Asadullah, another farmer, said the authorities have razed poppy crops on three acres of his land. "This is injustice," he declared. "I will not let them touch my remaining farms. How shall I manage the expenses of my eight-member family?" he asked.

But Herat governor Anwari repeated the official line: poppy cultivation is illegal, and the crops must be destroyed. At the same time, he promised to support the farmers by providing them with seeds and fertilisers. The governor said a dam was being built in the area at a cost of 40,000 US dollars to help farmers irrigate their fields.

Immediately after his election in late 2004, Afghan president Hamid Karzai had identified counter-narcotics as the top priority of his government. He is quoted saying that "the fight against drugs is the fight for Afghanistan", according to Washington-based Congressional Research Reports, a think-tank.

Last year, U.S., British and Afghan officials implemented a new strategy to provide viable economic alternatives to poppy cultivation and to disrupt corruption and narco-terrorist linkages. The Taliban, which had banned opium cultivation when it was in power, are behind Afghanistan's emergence as the world's largest producer.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has estimated that the country accounted for 87 percent of global opium, with a harvest of 4,100 metric tonnes in 2005.

Some 3.5 million or 10 percent of the Afghan population is involved in the opium trade, which accounts for 52 percent of the nation's legal gross domestic product of 5.2 billion dollars. Most of this money goes to drug trafficking networks rather than to the farmers and labourers who cultivate the fields in remote mountains areas.

Afghan police and counter-narcotics forces have cracked down on drug traffickers. In mid-April, round-up operations in Deshu district, in lawless Helmand, yielded "4,160 kg of opium, 47 kg of heroin, 80 kg of morphine, 1,362 kg of ammonium chloride, and 1,150 kg of sodium chloride," according to an official statement.

Elsewhere in Farah and Samangan provinces bordering Iran, police claimed to have seized 200 kgs of narcotics and arrested 26 smugglers over three weeks in March-April. Col. Muhammad Ayub Safi of the Border Police Regiment said the drugs were being smuggled into Iran, Afghanistan's western neighbour.

According to Safi, drug traffickers use the long, porous Afghan-Iran border. The Afghan drug trail goes from Iran to Turkey and beyond. All the heroin available on Britain's streets comes from Afghanistan, a report in The Telegraph daily said.

Britain, officially the lead nation in the struggle to cut off the world's opium trade, had contributed 55 million dollars to the campaign by the end of last year. It has pushed for the need to provide farmers with an alternative livelihood while hardliners in Washington have favoured a tougher approach, like spraying crops with poison.

Independent experts have advised against the use of force, and warned that it could push the small farmer into the arms of the Taliban. The Senlis Council, a drugs policy advisory council based in Paris, said farmers in Helmand, Nangarhar and Kandahar have returned to poppy cultivation with a vengeance this year.

The government failed to compensate them for the destruction of vast tracts of poppy crops that had ensured a sharp decline in production last year. Almas Bawar, spokesman for Senlis in Kabul, told Pajhwok Afghan News that their team had seen cheques issued by the government for poppy elimination that had bounced.

The Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think-tank, in a new report, ‘Afghanistan's Uncertain Transition From Turmoil to Normalcy', has urged foreign governments not to ''impose (on the country) their own programmes" for the control of the opium trade. ''Economic growth also requires a policy of eliminating narcotics that does not impoverish people. There should be no short-term conditionality of aid on eliminating narcotics. Elimination of narcotics will take well over a decade, and crop eradication is a counterproductive way to start such a programme,'' it has advised.

Afghanistan's spokesman for counter-narcotics, Zalmay Afzali, echoed the view. The alternative livelihood programme ''should not be confined to only seed distribution, we should construct roads, schools, clinics and other basic things for the farmers,'' he said.

(*Released under arrangement with Pajhwok Afghan News)