Focus on local efforts to reduce opium cultivation

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

NANGAHAR, 10 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - The streets and bazaar in Khogyani, a town in the eastern province of Nangarhar, are empty these days. Scattered groups of young men idle away the hours playing cards while others stare into space outside their mud-brick houses.

Khogyani, which was once one of the chief opium-producing districts in the entire eastern region, seems to have fallen on hard times. The reason is that most local farmers have heeded the president's call to desist from opium production and have turned away from the lucrative plant in order to grow other crops. On hectare after hectare of fields surrounding the town, the red of poppy has given way to green shoots of spring wheat.

"We obeyed [President Hamid] Karzai's orders and we will not cultivate poppy this year, but lets see if he is firm on his promises to the nation," Sadookhan, a 55-year-old peasant farmer in Khogyani, told IRIN.

ALTERNATIVES TO GROWING POPPY

Instead, Sadookhan has signed up for a food-for-work initiative organised by the World Food Programme (WFP) to learn how to cultivate alternatives to the poppy. "I will be paid in wheat and will also harvest wheat this year," said Sadookhan.

Other WFP sponsored schemes in the region involve training local people to grow fruit trees.

"Last year only a few people attended our nursery training but with the ban on poppy cultivation the demand is very high and we cannot meet demand," Mohammad Tahir, a project officer of the local aid agency Hewad told IRIN. It was Hewad that implemented a WFP nursery project in the nearby village

of Nemla.

Karzai has tried various tactics to wean Afghans off the crop. At his inauguration late last year he appealed to national and religious pride, held out the carrot of international aid and the stick of crop destruction in an effort to persuade hundreds of village and tribal leaders to curb poppy cultivation voluntarily.

Last year Afghanistan provided more than 80 percent of the world's illicit opium, with a record number of farmers cultivating the poppies the drug is derived from. There is a serious lack of alternative livelihoods in rural areas and it's hard to see the example of Khogyani catching on.

But officials in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar, said they hoped to lead the nation by example and expected to see a significant reduction in poppy cultivation this year.

"Many farmers are not cultivating poppy and others have destroyed the [poppy] crop themselves after the decision of Nangarhar elders," Haji Din Mohammad, Nangarhar governor, told IRIN in the provincial capital, Jalalabad.

ECONOMIC IMPACT OF OBEYING THE LAW

Turning away from poppy cultivation will have an impact on the entire economy of the region, local businessmen say. Ahmad Sabour is a 25-year-old shopkeeper who used to sell electricity produced by his Chinese-made generator.

"Last year people used to pay 500 Afs [US $10] per month but now at night the entire village is dark and no one wants electricity," he said.

For the farmers themselves, the financial losses incurred by this leap of faith will be even worse. Sabour earned around 250,000 Afs (US $45,000) last year from his poppy crop but he will be lucky to net $200 from turning his land over to wheat.

"With last year's money, I could pay for the school for my children and save some with a view to starting some other trade, like a small shop," said Sabour.

Other farmers interviewed by IRIN said that poppy eradication programmes in the province had indicated the government was serious about reducing the crop and that it was better to grow something that would yield a small profit rather than go with poppy and then have all the crop destroyed later

in the year.

Officials in Kabul are happy to see such developments in places like Nangahar but insist they will not be sustainable unless rural jobs and infrastructure are boosted.

"We have to think carefully about alternative livelihoods. Either we find jobs for those cultivating opium or we will try to manage the water better and help them with irrigation so that the cost of growing something else comes down," Habibullah Qaderi, minister for counter narcotics, told IRIN in Kabul.

"We have proposed to government 19 programmes to address alternative livelihoods. If they are funded and take place this year, I think there will be no poppies and no tension," Din Mohammad noted.

FOREIGN ASSISTANCE TO DEVELOP ALTERNATIVES

Din Mohammad said that after talks in the capital, Kabul, with the US and British ambassadors and foreign donors, they were satisfied that alternative livelihoods would be provided for farmers.

"The people of Nangarhar prove that they are firm in their decision [to refrain from growing poppies] and hope the international community is serious in their assistance and promises for the poor farmers," he said.

The governor was quick to add that the decision had been a difficult one to make, as tens of thousands of people in the province were jobless with few roads, clinics, schools. Farmers said that wheat cultivation alone, given the primitive methods available, would not be enough to sustain them and their families.

The reduction in cultivation in Nangahar followed a series of pledges of support by international donors but so far not much has been achieved. Temporary job creation has been introduced in the southern province of Helmand, where 9,000 people are employed in canal clearance - key to improving irrigation.

In Nangarhar, Din Mohammad said the US Agency for International Development (USAID) would soon start some projects. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is planning to start a similar work project in another big opium producing region, the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

But Din Mohammad said US distribution of 500 mt of wheat seeds in Nangarhar, barely enough for less than 10 percent of farmers, was clearly inadequate.

"This year is very sensitive, the central government and the international community should not lose the trust of people by going back on decisions to help us and show their seriousness in terms of assistance. We are doing our bit and it is hurting us, donors must do there bit," he emphasised.

LIVING WITHOUT POPPY

In front of the Afghan National Army (ANA) recruitment centre in Nangarhar hundreds of young men, mostly former poppy growers, line up to join the new fledging US-supported force. While hundreds have been recruited, officials said 4,000 more are on the standby list because of high demand. ANA

officials in Nangarhar said very few people had taken any interest in the past. Clearly potential recruits had previously been busy in the opium industry.

"Almost every eligible man in our village have come here to join the army as there is no poppy anymore," Sayed Zuhak, an ex-poppy grower, told IRIN as he stood in the queue waiting for an ANA interview.

The decision to stop growing opium is likely to have other short-term repercussions, local people said. Officials warned the decision would create tension as many people had already borrowed cash against future opium production.

"There is a strong possibility of mass displacement, clashes or killings because there is no poppy to pay the loans back," Din Mohammad warned. He called on government to create a fund to settle loans taken out by prospective opium growers.

"We also need small loans for farmers as it is very difficult to get any profit from just growing wheat."

In Helmand several serious disputes over opium poppy loans have taken place this year. According to officials in Helmand, people have to sell their land or leave the area in fear of the dealers who have lent cash to poor farmers against future harvests. Others have used the product itself as currency and now have no way of settling the debt.

"I borrowed 20 kg of opium to pay as dowry for my wedding as required by tradition, last year, but this year with no poppy I don't know how to pay the loan back," Mohammad Wali, a 25-year-old peasant farmer, told IRIN in Nad-e-Ali district of Helmand province.

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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