Poppies and poverty in Afghanistan

30 November 2009

The opium ban in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province has forced some farmers to move to alternative crops, but many poor farmers have difficulties finding alternative sources of income.

Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan is traditionally one of the main opium producing regions. But since governor Gul Agha Sherzai was appointed, poppy cultivation has reduced significantly. We recently visited the province to find out how this has happened and how the population feels about it.

We drive from Kabul to Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar. The winding road takes us down a beautiful gorge. Nangarhar province partly consists of a fertile valley well-suited for agricultural production. The valley is surrounded by mountains, with the Spingar belt in the south which includes the Tora Bora cave complex, notorious for being a Taliban stronghold and suspected location of Osama bin Laden in the first days of the U.S. invasion. Those areas are very poor, due to lack of arable land and water. Farmers here struggle to eke out a living. Opium has been their main cash crop for buying food, clothes, and pay for access to education and health.

Governor Gul Agha Sherzai has strong political ambitions. There is speculation he may be given a minister post in president Karzai's new cabinet. One of his trump cards is the significant reduction in opium cultivation in the province in the last two years. Nangarhar province, like the rest of Afghanistan, is a tribal society. The governor managed to convince the tribal leaders to refrain from growing opium in return for development aid and - some say - large sums of money.

We visit a former opium cultivating village in the Dar-e-Nur district in the northern part of the province, located in the mountains. Most houses here are built of stones, rather than of mud-brick like in most other places.

We visit a rose cultivation project and talk to the owner. "I am happy with the roses," he says. "But the income from opium was much higher." He is also cultivating wheat, but not enough to feed his family. The opium ban has limited access to credit for farmers - essential in case of urgent food shortages or medical problems. "Now there is no more trust between the people to get a loan or get things on credit," says an old bearded man with a white cap on his head. "The local shop now only accepts cash payments." The opium ban is also causing other problems. "In our culture we have to spend a lot of money on weddings. But after we were forced to stop growing poppy, it is hard to find the money."

We walk back into the village and enter a guestroom, where we are served snacks. Sitting on cushions against the wall, we eat almonds coated with sugar, peanuts, and raisins, and drink lots of tea. It is planting season now, and we ask the farmers whether they will grow opium again this year. "We stopped cultivating opium after the local government announced it would not be allowed anymore," says a 40-year old farmer who is the Malik, or village leader. "So we won't grow it. If we still grow opium, we will be put in jail and given a huge fine."

Unfortunately, the security situation does not allow us to drive to remote villages in the mountains. Communities in those places have been hit hardest by the opium ban. "As soon as they see an opportunity, they will revert to growing opium," say Habibullah, the local aid worker who is translating for us.

In the afternoon we drive to another village in a lowland area, not far from Jalalabad. The roads in this area are good and newly built with international development money. We also see flood protection walls and various other projects to support local communities, and prevent them from cultivating opium again. We sit outside in a garden on a big carpet. We are served lunch, consisting of flat round bread, potato curry and home-made goat cheese.

Although the people we speak with are happy about the projects, they say the opium ban has hit the poor in their village hard. "They have difficulty to find alternative sources of income," we are told. Some people in the village are relatively well-off and own more land than needed to feed their families. Others are landless sharecroppers who earn 30-40% of what the fields they work on generate in income. The rest goes to the land owner. It is clear these people are struggling to survive on a daily basis. They most certainly need development assistance.

The main obstacle to development projects, the villagers tell us, is corruption. They say they support the efforts of the governor to develop the province and stop opium cultivation. But they are cynical about the implementation. "When the international community gives money to projects, please make sure you give it directly to the people and not to our government," says an old man. "Otherwise it will never reach us."

Originally published by Reuters AlertNet ©