Where Poppies Grow

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on May 6, 2007


(by Priya Abraham, WorldMag.com) – Afghanistan has received little American press attention lately, with occasional reports focusing on continuing fighting. But the efforts of Malaly Pikar Volpi and other development workers like her may make the difference between defeating the Muslim extremists who make up the Taliban and seeing them gradually reconquer the country.

That’s because Afghan poppy fields are a persistent backdrop to the war on terror. The country is the world’s largest supplier of the flowers that make opium, producing 90 percent of the drug. Drug dealers refine opium into illegal heroin that ends up largely on Europe’s streets. Last year, despite massive aid from the United States and Europe, farmers harvested their largest opium crop in years–and the Taliban often grabbed the profits.

Standing in the gap is Volpi, executive director of the U.S.-Afghanistan Reconstruction Council, a Washington-based nonprofit that is helping to rebuild her original homeland. Born in Kabul, she came to the United States with her parents and trained as an economist. On one return trek through Afghan poppy country she interviewed 500 residents, including many farmers, learning what it might take to contain the opium trade.

One way tried by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID): Give men cash for clearing irrigation canals or throwing gravel on roads. But such projects do not last long, and men who participate still need to earn as much as possible: “If the main farmer is throwing gravel on a road, his wife is growing poppy,” Volpi points out.

The farmers want and need regular income, yet she says they would prefer not to produce opium, since it is haram (forbidden) under Islam. But the temptation is strong: The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that one hectare (about 2 1/2 acres) of poppy can earn an Afghan farmer 10 times more than a cereal crop.

Volpi suggests cutting out aid middlemen and directly providing what farmers desire, such as cold storage or trucks to transport crops. She said they might turn from poppies if they think other crops stand a chance.

Right now, though, farmers who go straight often face economic hardship. One farmer in the heavy poppy-growing province of Badakhshan told Volpi he had a storehouse full of rotting wheat that he could not sell. He had followed the government’s instructions not to grow poppy, but a market flooded by Pakistani wheat and popular bleached flour meant the crop’s prices were too low. This year, he said, he would plant poppy.

Other farmers grumble about faltering U.S. and official efforts to help them shift to crops such as potatoes. Seeds and fertilizers came too late for the planting season. Poppy, though, is easy to grow, and in dry Afghanistan doesn’t need much water. In Badakhshan, aid workers may have to navigate a mountain and muddy roads to deliver a truckload of planting potatoes to farmers. Drug dealers, by contrast, know their farmers already have ready stocks of tiny blue-black poppy seeds.

Last week NATO and Afghan soldiers swept through southern Afghanistan, and in the poppy-laden Sangin Valley they came under attack from heavily armored Taliban fighters. Mortar fire and heavy machine guns greeted British soldiers when they set out on foot patrols between Kandahar and Herat. Traffickers work symbiotically with the Taliban, providing weapons and funding in exchange for protection of drug routes and poppy fields.

Volpi’s aid group works heavily in Badakhshan. Unpaved roads often become impassable after mud slides, but the opium trade has well-grooved byways. Smaller drug dealers know farmers and local leaders well because they usually hail from provincial villages in valleys that typically contain several thousand people.

Badakhshan has little Taliban influence, but its isolation means it has been cut off from needed development. Farmers for centuries have cultivated poppy for seeds used in baking bread and for medicinal purposes. They also grow mulberries and walnuts and produce the country’s best pistachios.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 wiped out much of Badakhshan’s agriculture. The armies cut down trees and forests to ferret out hiding fighters. When Soviet forces left, factional fighting between Afghans, and then the Taliban’s 1996 takeover, brought new problems–and poppy dealers operated even more brazenly.

Volpi paints a picture of today’s traffickers riding motorcycles, checking on poppy fields, and delivering payments. Dealers ringed by security guards give corrupt officials a share of drug profits. Millions in foreign aid haven’t changed the nature of the trade. Before planting, a dealer may decide to pay a farmer $2,000 an acre. He pays half up front and the other half at harvest. Cultivating poppy takes many hands, and women often work alongside men, or grow their own fields as sharecroppers.

Life is often hard for farmers, but it can also turn miserable. At harvest time, from April to late July, farmers cut lines into poppy bulbs until a milky liquid–the opium gum–oozes out. Dealers buy that liquid by the ounce, but if the yield is insufficient farmers fall into debt and may hand over their daughters as payment–or grow twice as much the next year without pay, Volpi said.

Even in flush years farmers garner payments that are only a fraction of the profit. According to the State Department, farmers received not more than a quarter of the opium harvest’s value last year–$755 million–with the rest going to narcotics traffickers. Volpi has met the farmers and says, “You can tell by the way they live and the way they dress that money is not flowing to them.”

Still, opium brings a more reliable income than wheat or other crops. Markets for grain and other alternatives are scarce. Finding trucks to transport crops or storing more perishable crops in Badakhshan’s sub-zero winters and 100-degree summers are challenges.

In Badakhshan dealers who learn of poppy eradication sweeps simply try to stop them through their connections, or they warn farmers to harvest early. Officials eradicate crops, the farmers say, mostly to show “the foreigners.”

In southern Afghanistan progress is also slow, as evidenced by the recent return to the United States of Homira Nassery, a Kabul-born Afghan-American who worked for a federal contractor in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand.

For a year she lived and worked in a compound with a pink stucco house hemmed by barbed wire and sandbags. When she ventured out for agricultural projects, she wore sweltering body armor and rode in armored cars that were potential targets for ambushes. In the field she often donned a burqa, so as not to attract hostile attention to veiled local women with whom she met.

Nassery also worried about her young female co-workers: To avoid attacks, they walked varied routes to work, carried different bags, or wore different shoes. Such a fortress mentality seems eons away from the “Little America” Lashkar Gah once was: In the ’60s, a U.S. aid project built avenues and now-faded American homes, along with irrigation canals and a dam.

The south’s poor security now, Nassery says, is “95 percent” of the reason why reconstruction is slow and frustrating. And she is now gone, while the Taliban makes a comeback. In Helmand, when poppy eradication drives began, local farmers turned to the Taliban to protect their poppies. Taliban forces have bombed and attacked school and road projects, pushing foreign contractors to abandon nearly every development project.

Drug traffickers and the Taliban often find sanctuary with their opium profits across the border in Pakistan. During its rule, the Taliban played a clever double-game. Knowing Islam forbids intoxicants such as opium, its leaders banned opium cultivation for a period. But they were already sheltering stockpiles of opium, and the ban drove up its price. At any rate, they reasoned that it would be wrong to sell opium to Muslims, but not to infidel drug addicts in the West.

“They were some of the big beneficiaries of the campaign of cultivation,” said James Phillips, a Heritage Foundation terrorism expert. “Under the new system, they provide protection to convoys, to material coming out of poppy growing regions.”

U.S. reconstruction in Afghanistan, faced with the tough sell of eradicating the poppy crops, has largely focused on broad programs such as vaccinating children, building schools, and helping once-oppressed women. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has even warned against destroying opium fields before desperate farmers have other livelihoods.

Some believe that farmers who maximize their income by growing poppy will never switch, but Volpi has a different sense, based on her interviews with farmers: “If they had the opportunity to make half the money without fear and without shame, they would do it.”

Copyright ©2007 WORLD Magazine, May 12, 2007 issue.  Reprinted here May 8th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.