ZHARI, Afghanistan – Afghan farmers are opposing a government campaign to eradicate their poppy crops in the southern province of Kandahar.
Farmers say they have received little assistance from the government, maintaining they had little choice but to plant poppies because it is the only cash crop that enables them to make ends meet. Authorities, however, say they invested millions in helping the farmers and there is no excuse to allow the illegal crop to be grown.
Janan, a young farmer in Kandahar’s rural Zhari district, says the government should have prevented them from planting poppies in the first place. Now that their crop is ready to be harvested, its eradication will endanger their livelihoods.
“Our economic circumstances are very weak, which led us to plant poppies,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan while standing amid a field of red, blooming poppy flowers. “Their emphasis should be on helping us.”
Middle-aged farmer Fatah Mohammad is furious at the prospect of government tractors, protected by armed policeman, cutting down his nearly ripe poppy plants.
Late last year, Mohammad borrowed nearly $20,000 as an advance on his poppy crop. He said he has received no cash grants, fertilizers, subsidies, or other assistance from government.
“The government has not helped us. They did dig some tube wells here, but we have not received any water from them,” he said. “The people contracted to carry out the drilling did just enough to pocket the funds, which didn’t help us at all.”
Mohammad is now seriously thinking about joining the Taliban insurgency, who might provide protection to his future poppy crops.
“This government campaign to eradicate poppies has deprived us of everything [we do for our livelihood], he said. “We now must decide whether to continue backing the government or side with the Taliban.”
Aslam Kaka’s weathered face and white beard chronicle the hardships he has faced to survive nearly 40 years of war in Afghanistan.
He says wheat and other cash crops cannot help them feed their families because they are labor-intensive and demand lots of water but hardly bring any profits or revenues.
“Please tell us what should we do to survive,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Wheat and other crops are no good for feeding my children [throughout the year].”
Authorities in Kandahar, however, reject the farmers’ complaints.
Gul Muhammad Shukran, head of Afghan government’s counter-narcotics department in Kandahar, says they invested more $20 million last year to provide alternative livelihoods for poppy growers in Zhari and neighboring Maiwand and Punjwai districts.
“There is a direct correlation between security and poppy cultivation. Regions where there is peace [and government control] have fewer poppy crops compared with those plagued by instability and violence,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “After we implemented projects to help local farmers, we are now bound to eradicate illegal narcotics crops.”
Shukran’s department estimates most of the more than 5,000 hectares of land cultivated with poppies in the province are in regions controlled by the Taliban, which makes it practically impossible to eradicate the entire crop.
Still, authorities are determined to get rid of some 2,000 hectares of poppies in the regions considered safe enough for their eradication teams to operate in. The Afghan government largely controls Zhari, Maiwand, and Punjwai districts, which surround the provincial capital, also called Kandahar.
Farmers in southern Afghanistan, where most of the world’s illicit opium is cultivated, are at the bottom of a complex chain of global opium and heroin production.
They typically take loans out on future crops from middlemen and wealthy drug traffickers. While the traffickers and mafia bosses reap most of the profits, the farmers are caught in unending cycles of debt.
Still, planting poppies pays a lot more than any other cash crop. The hardy crop requires less work and is generally resistant to diseases and bad weather.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai’s reporting from Zhari near Kandahar, Afghanistan.