Afghan farmers turn to opium poppy.

They are already sowing next year's poppy crop in the fields of Afghanistan's remote and mountainous north, openly farming the opium that will one day end up as heroin on the streets of Europe.

But it is impossible not to sympathise with the farmers of Badakshan, a rustic and achingly beautiful land of snow-capped peaks and grinding poverty that is also one of Afghanistan's main opium producing regions.

"During the civil war people lost everything, and it is only through poppy farming that they are able to provide for their families and build a decent home," said Haq Abdur Rahim, standing among his fields as his workers ploughed and sowed.

Rahim says he earns $3,000 (1,700 pounds) for the 10 kg (22 lb) of opium he can produce from a single, tiny field, compared with just $10 for growing the 60 kg (132 lb) of wheat the same plot would yield "which isn't even enough to pay the wages of the workers".

"Unless the government provides us jobs and solves our problems, they should let us continue growing poppies. But when they fulfil their promises, we ourselves will stop," he said.

On Wednesday the United Nations will release its 2003 Afghan opium survey, showing a small rise in production in a country already accounting for 75 percent of global supply.

Worryingly, the U.N. survey shows poppy cultivation expanding to regions it has never been seen in before.

But the biggest rise has come in the northeastern province of Badakshan, offsetting progress in eradicating poppy fields in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

"Badakshan is really a problem province," said Adam Bouloukos of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul.

"This is largely because the province was almost entirely cut off from central government, both politically and physically."

War, poverty, official collusion

Opium poppies have been grown in Badakshan for centuries, but cultivation took off during the upheavals of Afghanistan's two decades of war and occupation.

Government officials have often done little to prevent it, and have even been accused of running small laboratories to process the opium into heroin.

Bouloukos said two senior provincial officials suspected of involvement in the drugs trade were recently replaced.

Just before last year's harvest government officials offered to pay farmers $300 a field to destroy their crops. Rahim's poppies were mown down, but the money never came.

"The officials just escaped with the money," Rahim said. "That left everyone in debt, and it meant we had no choice but to grow more."

The opium trade is thought to be worth $2.5 billion a year to Afghanistan; roughly twice as much as international aid and between 40 and 50 percent of the country's total economy.

Around the isolated village of Jurum in Badakshan, every field is turned over to poppy cultivation.

Shiny red motorbikes parked alongside a big street market, full of imported clothes and goods, betray the wealth the trade has brought, in a province where the donkey or foot are more usual modes of transport.

Drugs fill the vacuum

Three years ago the fundamentalist Taliban regime had some success in forcing farmers to stop growing opium, especially in their southern heartland.

But the trade has mushroomed since they were ousted from power, and these days the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai is not strong enough, politically or militarily, to force farmers to give up the trade.

In Badakshan the terrain is not on their side.

"We have always grown opium here," said Rahim. "Look around at these mountains. There are places you cannot reach except by foot, and villagers will not show officials their fields."

Officials recognise the stick must come with a carrot to encourage farmers to give up. But Afghanistan is no longer top of the world's priority list, and aid is not coming in fast enough to make a difference in Badakshan or other opium regions.

"What the drug trade has proved is that it will fill the vacuum," said Paul O'Brien of aid agency Care. "Unless we fill the gaps in security and reconstruction, the trade will continue growing."

Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai warns his country risks turning into a narco-mafia state unless the outside world dramatically steps up aid.

Rahim, an affable white-bearded farmer, is certainly no drugs lord. Last year he says he earned more than he could count but says it all goes on his two wives and 13 children.

His nine-year-old daughter Mahi Munir earns $20 a day for lancing poppies during the harvest. "I spend the money on schoolbooks, pens and clothes," she said. "And sometimes, if I am hungry, I buy myself something to eat."

[Source: By Simon Denyer, The Mirror, London, UK, 28oct03]

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This document has been published on 30nov03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.