Afghanistan's Northern Province Says No to Poppy

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

MAZAR-e-SHARIF, Afghanistan, June 6, 2007 (ENS) - Muhammad Nazar is busily weeding his cotton fields. Last year at this time, he was engaged in harvesting poppy, but, like many landowners in Balkh province, he has had a change of heart.

"The government has restricted poppy cultivation, and religious leaders have told us that growing poppy is haram [prohibited by Islam]," he said. "We should not go against our religion and the constitution."

As he continued to work, Nazar said, "I hope to get a good harvest, and the government has promised us a good price for cotton."

Balkh province used to be the third largest producer of opium poppy, after Helmand and Kandahar. But this year, the counter-narcotics program has all but rid the province of the illegal crop.

Some farmers, like Nazar, say that they have switched to legitimate farming because of government strictures. But many others give a more pragmatic reason for their decision.

Here, a farmer grows potatoes and poppies in the same field to compare the returns. (Photo courtesy ICARDA)
"The price of poppy has been going down year by year," said Noor Gul, a farmer in Charbolak, formerly the center of Balkh's poppy cultivation. "We couldn't afford the expense of growing it, so we decided to plant something else instead."

Dealers say that the price of opium has been declining due to overproduction. While in past years, a kilo of opium paste would fetch over US$130 on the local market, it is now worth about half that.

Afghanistan, the world's main source of opium poppy, produced 6,100 kilos of opium paste in 2006, close to 30 percent above world demand, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. This year, production is likely to be even bigger, say government officials.

"We lost a lot of money last year," said Gul. "We spent a lot on poppy, and got too little in return." This year, he has switched to wheat.

Even drug traffickers are having problems. Those who buy up raw paste on the local market to sell on to bigger dealers for export say they cannot make a living out of the trade any more.

"We used to encourage farmers to grow poppy," said one small-time trafficker, who did not want to be named. "I don't know what went wrong this year. I had to sell my poppy at a much lower price [than last year], so I quit. I am doing much better as a shopkeeper."

During a visit to Balkh in mid-May, Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Muqbal told reporters that the province was now poppy-free.

Afghanistan's Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Muqbal says that no more opium poppy is grown in Balkh. (Photo courtesy Office of President Hamid Karzai)
"I am grateful to the governor and the people of Balkh that they have reduced poppy cultivation to zero in Balkh province," he said. "This is a big achievement. The government in Balkh worked with the people and convinced them that cultivating poppy is not to their advantage.

"We are going to apply this experience to those provinces that are still growing poppy," Muqbal said, adding that the government would launch development projects to help the people of Balkh province.

The onus will now be on the authorities to prove to farmers that their decision was correct.

"We have a lot of problems," said Nasrullah, a farmer in the Chemtal district. "The irrigation system isn't working, and there is no proper market for our produce. And the government hasn't helped us with seeds or fertilizer."

But he added that there are some signs of progress, "Last winter, the government came to our village and asked us about our problems, and now we see that they are working on reconstructing the dam. So we are hopeful."

Nasrullah warned that there are limits to the farmers' patience. "If the government doesn't fulfill its promises, we will return to poppy," he said. "More than before."

Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Noor (Photo courtesy Afghanistan Online)
Atta Muhammad Noor, the governor of Balkh, acknowledged that the government has an obligation to the farmers.

"We have completely eliminated poppy from Balkh," he said. "We have made commitments and we have to keep them. However, the international community and the United States government have made promises to us, and they have not followed through."

William Wood, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, visited Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, on May 13.

United States Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood was appointed to this post in April 2007. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
"According to the statistics, there is no poppy left in Balkh," he told reporters. "We have asked the U.S. Congress to provide generous economic assistance for Balkh as a reward."

Many observers question why, when Balkh is such a success, other provinces remain firmly committed to the poppy trade.

"The case of Balkh indicates that, if the government is serious, there will not be a single poppy plant left in Afghanistan," said Muhammad Nabi Assir, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif. "It is quite incredible. One of the largest poppy-producing areas has completely eliminated the crop. Meanwhile, other provinces are increasing production."

The Balkh experience could be translated to other provinces, he added, if the local governments were so inclined.

But Zalmai Afzali, spokesman for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, said that good security is the main cause of Balkh's success, just as instability is the reason why counter-narcotics efforts have failed in places like Helmand, the main opium producing region by a long shot.

Afghani men pick a bumper poppy crop, but not in Balkh. (Photo courtesy YaleGlobal)
Helmand has been the scene of major fighting between the resurgent Taliban and foreign backed government troops, which has hampered eradication efforts.

"We have been more successful in Balkh because it there's a lower presence of mafia and insurgents," said Afzali. "We have stopped poppy production there, and we hope to do the same in the other eight provinces in the north."

According to Afzali, the scale of eradication in Afghanistan has almost doubled in the last year - 25,000 hectares had been destroyed, as opposed to 13,000 in 2006.

But this may be more than offset by a surge in poppy cultivation in Helmand, where, according to provincial officials, 20,000 hectares more have been planted with the crop this year compared with 2006.

"If poppy production is high in Afghanistan again this year, it is entirely due to Helmand," said Interior Minister Muqbel. "We have security problems in Helmand and we are going to solve the poppy problem by stabilizing the situation there."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.