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Afghan Farmers Return To Poppy Fields Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

An Afghan farmer looks at his poppy corp in Zhari, a rural district in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.
An Afghan farmer looks at his poppy corp in Zhari, a rural district in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

ZHARI, Afghanistan -- In a sign that some rural Afghan farmers are attempting to protect themselves amid the looming uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, poppy cultivation has increased in a southern Afghan province.

Farmers in Kandahar say poverty and decreasing returns for their agricultural produce forced them to cultivate poppies, which are largely considered the best cash crop in the impoverished country.

“There are no factories or other businesses here that can offer employment. Our prospects have been ravaged by drought,” Noor Agha, a young farmer in Kandahar’s rural Zhari district, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Now the coronavirus [pandemic] has hit us, too, which has left us no option but to cultivate poppies.”

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Bahauddin, another young farmer, says the grim economic prospects forced them to cultivate poppies. “We are receiving no subsidies or assistance from the government, which leaves poppy cultivation as our only means to survive,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

He cited the cost of basic staples such as wheat flour, cooking oil, and sugar as costing more than a $100 to feed an average family every month. “It is important to understand that we are turning poppies out of extreme desperation,” he noted.

For nearly three decades, impoverished Afghan farmers have used cultivating poppies as a means to survive the various cycles of war in their country. Lenders working as middlemen typically provide credit to many Afghan farmers for a poppy crop. They also collect and purchase opium paste from the farmers. The arrangement pays rural Afghan peasants more than any other cash crop but also makes them dependent on the harvest.

Once collected from farmers, drug traffickers both large and small rack in large profits on Afghan opium, which is also processed into heroin. Helmand, a large province bordering Kandahar, now provides most of the world’s heroin and opium. Since 2001, the poppy fields have only grown while multibillion-dollar projects aimed at eradicating the crop have failed. The Taliban are estimated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the trade as the drug mafia have also penetrated the pro-government elites.

Such ingress grants the illicit drug industry great influence across Afghanistan. Authorities in Kandahar seem not interested in destroying the current poppy crop as its cultivation straddle territories controlled by the Taliban and those governed by the government.

Ahmad Baheer Ahmadi, a spokesman for Kandahar’s governor, says they currently lack a budget to destroy the poppy crop but are trying to persuade farmers away from growing it.

“We have given the provincial branches of the ministries of agriculture and rural development plans and policies to wean farmers away from poppy cultivation in some regions,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We are trying to win them over to alternative crops.”

Ahmadi says the local authorities have already succeeded in establishing that saffron, pistachios, and some varieties of wheat can be equally profitable in some of the poppy-growing regions.

But currently the land under poppy cultivation has increased in Zhari, Maiwad, and Kandahar districts, which is also the provincial capital. Dand, Damman, Arghandab, and Takhta Pul are four of Kandahar’s 17 districts where poppy cultivation had ceased for five consecutive years.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai from Zhari, Afghanistan.