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AFGHANISTAN: Fighting a losing battle against opium production

KABUL, 5 March 2007 (IRIN) - Afghanistan is set to produce record volumes of opium this year because the government’s eradication efforts are constrained by insecurity in the volatile south and southeastern regions.

“If we do not have peace in the coming months, we will probably end up with another boom in opium production for 2007,” warned Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

In 2006, Afghanistan produced a record 6,100 tonnes of opium, a 49 percent increase over the previous year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, accounting for one-third of gross domestic product (GDP). This was 92 percent of the world’s supply.

More than five years since the collapse of the hardline Taliban regime in October 2001, Afghanistan faces an insurgency in the remote poppy-growing region that for the past weeks has kept Mosa Qala district and other popular poppy-growing areas of Helmand province largely under Taliban control.

“This year we have given a strict message to farmers,” stated Zemarai Bashari, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior. “We will destroy all poppy fields.”

About 550 policemen have been sent to Helmand and neighbouring provinces, including Kandahar, where they have successfully eradicated more than 3,000 hectares of poppy fields.

However, such a figure could prove minuscule compared with the 172,600 hectares that experts believe were under cultivation last year.

Moreover, officials concede that insecurity will likely frustrate counter-narcotics efforts, particularly in Helmand, where 40 percent of Afghanistan’s illicit opium is cultivated.

“We have some problems in Helmand,” Bashari admitted, “and we know Helmand has the largest number of poppy fields in the country.”

In addition, government forces and local poppy farmers who have yet to be provided with alternative sources of income frequently come to blows.

On 27 February, clashes between eradication forces and local farmers in Nangarhar province, in the east, killed one and wounded three. Such incidents serve only to fuel growing concerns that poppy farmers - deeply disenchanted with the government’s eradication strategy - could find common ground with anti-government elements, including the Taliban.

In an effort to address such fears, Afghan officials say this year’s eradication push is being launched earlier to provide farmers with adequate opportunities to plant alternative crops.

A question of strategy

However, the government’s strategy has been criticised for being ineffective and incompatible with the realities of impoverished Afghans, millions of whom are largely dependent on poppy cultivation.

“This is a strategy promoted by the US and the UK,” asserted Gulalai Momand, deputy country manager for the Paris-based Senlis Council, a policy and development group, which recommends licensing poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. “It alienates Afghan farmers from their government.”

The government has imposed restrictions on the council’s activities in the country, warning the organisation not to advocate for the authorisation of poppy cultivation, which the council says could be used for legitimate medical purposes.

Yet in the absence of tangible alternative livelihoods that could realistically meet the basic needs of destitute Afghan farmers, explained Momand, “it is counter-productive to emphasise solely eradication and a narrow-minded strategy”.

Afghan and international aid organisations created a Counter Narcotics Trust Fund in 2005, which has received US$33 million to finance alternative livelihood projects this year alone. However, with farmers profiting $775 million from the country’s $3.1 billion poppy industry in 2006, according to a US State Department report released on 1 March, it is clearly not enough.

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai pays $70 a month to its poppy eradication police, who destroyed less than 10 percent of the poppy fields in 2006.

“They [the eradication police] destroyed my small field only because I did not have money to bribe them,” Shahzada, a farmer in Helmand, complained. “For those who know officials or have the means to bribe them, their fields remain safe.”

“Police chiefs accused of corruption in 13 districts of Nangarhar province have been fired,” countered Bashari, adding that more provincial officials would be sacked if found guilty.

But despite the rhetoric, it is clear the clock is ticking, with most analysts predicting a bumper harvest this year.




Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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