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Afghan Farmers Fear For Livelihoods As Taliban Bans Opium

Afghan farmers working in poppy fields on the outskirts of Kandahar in late March.

Wali Jan, a farmer in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, is expected to soon harvest poppies from his half-hectare farm.

Standing in his blooming poppy field in Garni, an impoverished village on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt, Jan is upset by the Taliban's decision this month to ban poppy cultivation. He says he will be unable to feed his wife and their eight children if the Taliban prevents him from planting a poppy crop this fall.

"If they impose a harsh ban, it will be devastating for us,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “How will I feed my children?”

Jan says the Taliban should have issued their comprehensive ban only after providing tens of thousands of impoverished farmers like him with an alternative crop first. “If they [the Taliban-led government] can provide us with an alternative, we will not need to plant this,” he says.

Asadullah, a farmer in the neighboring province of Kandahar, agrees. He says the only way to survive in Pashmul, an agricultural village in the Panjwai district on the outskirts of Kandahar city, the provincial capital, is to plant poppies. He says poppies, which require little water and care, typically bring in twice the money they can get from wheat or other cash crops.

An Afghan farmer works in poppy fields on the outskirts of Kandahar in March.
An Afghan farmer works in poppy fields on the outskirts of Kandahar in March.

“We are very disappointed with this ban,” he told Radio Azadi. “[The Taliban-led government] should either help us find an alternative or get us aid.”

But experts say the Taliban-led government, which is still not recognized by any country eight months after seizing power in August, will not be able to help Afghan farmers by attracting development assistance because the ban will not help in winning international recognition.

The Taliban-led government faced almost universal condemnation internationally and from Afghans after going back on its promises to reopen schools for girls last month.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank, says most farmers grow poppies to stay out of poverty.

“This ban might push them back into poverty, which might have consequences,” he told RFE/RL.

He says the Taliban won the support of the farmers in southern Afghanistan by acting as a protector of their poppy fields during their two-decade insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government.

Ruttig says many Afghan farmers will try to circumvent the ban by “using connections to the local Taliban leaders or just plant the poppy somewhere they hope they won’t patrol.”

He saw the Taliban implemented a similar ban in late 2000, which reduced raw opium production from more than 6,000 metric tons to under 100 in 2001.

“Then and now, the Taliban leadership is serious in implementing what they say is based on Islamic Shari'a law but, as individuals, they often do other things,” he says.

A Bid For International Recognition

Mohammad Ehsan Zia, a former Afghan minister for rural development, says the Taliban ban primarily aims to cultivate a positive international image after the hard-line government faced harsh criticism over its ban on girls’ education.

“It is more for international consumption than actual misery in Afghanistan,” he told RFE/RL. “They wanted to do something positive to show another side of the Taliban government to gain international recognition.”

Afghan farmers gather poppies during a harvest in Helmand Province. (file photo)
Afghan farmers gather poppies during a harvest in Helmand Province. (file photo)

Zia, now a senior fellow at the Doha Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, says the ban will neither win the Taliban international recognition nor help obtain much-needed international development aid, which remains suspended after the Taliban seized power.

“Respect for human rights and women's rights, inclusive governance, and counterterror are the basic criteria for recognition,” he said of the international community's key prerequisites for recognizing the Taliban-led government. "A ban on poppy cultivation was not a condition because the international community has lived with poppy cultivation for over two decades.”

He says that without gaining international recognition, billions of dollars in international aid are unlikely to return to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. “Development aid can make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Afghans,” he says.

Impoverished farmers in war-ravaged Afghanistan, particularly in the southern provinces of Uruzgan, Kandahar and Helmand, have for decades been shackled to poppy cultivation by drug traffickers who often put peasants into debt.

WATCH: Afghan Poppy Crops Continue To Grow, Despite Talk Of Taliban Ban

Afghan Poppy Crops Continue To Grow, Despite Talk Of Taliban Ban
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As the Afghan state crumbled during the civil war in the 1990s, Afghan farmers turned to poppies to survive. Since then, Afghanistan has produced most of the world’s illicit opium. After being processed into heroin and other narcotics, it is smuggled globally.

But Afghanistan itself and two of its neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, also suffered soaring drug-addiction rates for decades.

Lal Mohammad, a farmer in Kandahar, is happy with his bumper poppy harvest.

The Taliban is not yet confiscating opium from farmers to avoid creating widespread resentment in a region that provided fighters for the militants' 20-year insurgency.

Mohammad had planted the narcotic crop on his three-hectare field in Kandahar’s Zhari district in hopes of making more money than any other cash crop can get him.

An Afghan farmer in Kandahar harvests opium poppies on April 3.
An Afghan farmer in Kandahar harvests opium poppies on April 3.

“The amount of opium previously sold for 20,000 afghanis (about $200) last year is now being sold for more than 100,000 afghanis (about $1,000),” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi in reference to the rapid rise in opium prices per kilogram since the beginning of this year.

But Zia argues that poppies keep Afghan farmers in an oppressive cycle.

“The farmers became poorer and poorer and became dependent on the money they received from drug traffickers,” Zia noted.

Asmatullah, another farmer in Pashmul, says time is running out for the Taliban to pay attention to the plight of Afghan farmers.

“Before they enforce the ban ahead of the next crop, they need to find an alternative crop [for farmers to plant],” he told Radio Azadi, adding that wheat, corn, vegetables, and other cash crops are not a viable alternative to poppies because they need irrigation and are labor- and time-intensive.

In Garni, the village in Uruzgan, 60-year-old farmer Yar Mohammad has been growing poppies since he began farming as a teenager.

Looking at his ripe poppy field, he adds that the narcotic crop helped him survive wars and droughts.

"This has been the only crop that can grow in these parched lands.”

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.