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October 16, 2004 - The Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Afghanistan's Farmers Depend On The Poppy

By Matthew Fisher

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The opium poppies used to make heroin grow with one-fifth the water needed for grain, provide a yield three times greater, and bring in a price few Afghan families can afford to turn down, writes Matthew Fisher in Kabul.

The Amanulla brothers grow opium poppies to make heroin. As the chief of the criminal branch of the Kabul police, Gen. Abdul Jameel is responsible for arresting men such as the Amanullas. Yet the brothers and the police general were in complete agreement earlier this week about how to stop the opium trade.

"The fault is not with the farmers," said the older of the Amanulla brothers, a tall man with a grey beard and the splayed feet of a farmer, as he and his brother sat crosslegged on a rug offering plates of apples and grapes to two visitors. "The farmers must support their families. The fault is with the government for not providing work."

Across Kabul, in a large, Soviet-style office on one of the city's few quiet boulevards, Gen. Jameel said almost the same thing.

"Drugs are the greatest challenge in Afghanistan today," the general said. "They are a big disease. If we continue to grow poppy it could destroy the entire nation. But don't just take poppy away from a farmer. Give him a job."

Gen. Jameel took great pains to explain opium was Afghanistan's shame.

"First of all, the people of Afghanistan don't like drugs," the general said. "We are Muslim and from the Muslim point-of-view drugs are haram (not allowed). But different regimes brought opium into the economy.

"During the Taliban regime some big businessmen went to farmers who, say, had five hectares of land on which they grew, say, two tonnes of wheat for 100,000 Afghanis. These big businessmen would say, 'If you grow poppy I will give you 200,000 Afghanis.'"

Once again, the general's words were echoed by the Amanullas.

"We feel regret when the U.S. and foreign countries call Afghanistan the greatest grower of opium in the world. If we had not had 23 years of war, we would not be accused of this," said the younger brother. "Using heroin causes a sickness that is harmful to youngsters so obviously we feel bad. They are human beings like us. They are the next generation. So it is very sad, but we have no alternative. The normal economy in Afghanistan is zero."

His brother added matter-of-factly: "A businessman comes and fixes a price. If we agree, there is a sale. It's easy."

It was not always this way in Afghanistan, said the Amanullas, who grew up on a three-hectare farm that still belongs to the family in Kunar province near the Pakistan border.

"When we were children only five per cent of the farmers were involved in the opium trade and there was no real difference between opium and other crops," the older brother, who spent 24 years in the army, remembered. "We had water and lots of rain and everything was OK. But then came 20 years of war and 20 years of drought."

Farmers learned the poppy would grow with one-fifth of the water required for grain, and would provide a yield about three times greater than grain.

"The real difference was this," the older brother continued. "If we grew wheat we would get between $200 and $250 for our harvest. If we grew poppy we would get about $1,000. Soon all the families were growing poppy to support their children."

Although western diplomats were skeptical, Gen. Jameel said his force arrested anyone they found to be involved in heroin trafficking. The Amanullas gave mixed answers on this question. They and their neighbours all still had opium to sell from last year's bumper crop, but they had not sold it because of police checkpoints.

"Everybody has opium for sale in their homes now because the government has been taking measures to stop us from selling it," the younger of the Amannula brothers said. "It is hard to get out. If they find you with it, you go to jail."

Members of the Edmonton-based Lord Strathconas Horse said when driving on patrol through villages near Kabul they sometimes smelled the bitter scent of dried opium hanging in the air. U.S. army pilots report seeing entire high-mountain valleys of red poppy flowers.

The Amanullas said the opium they succeeded in selling usually went to Europe via the former Soviet Union or Iran.

But the only way to deal with what was Afghanistan's only successful industry was to give Afghans an alternative, Gen. Jameel said, returning to his favourite theme.

"We need the UN's help to rebuild our factories and we need help with agriculture. We need to change the economy so that people will want to grow wheat again. The international community should take part in every field of Afghan life to help us overcome our problems."

With Afghanistan at or near the bottom of every global economic index, and the West unlikely to donate the billions of dollars required to lift the Afghan economy even a little, it is highly likely the Amanullas will continue growing poppies and that Gen. Jameel's men will continue hunting them down.

"We only desire to live like everyone else. If the government would get us water for other crops, the poppy would be eradicated very quickly. If we had water, we would not need to grow poppy."

As he saw his visitors to the door, the 48-year old farmer added: "If you stopped the market for heroin in your countries, nobody would pay a rupee for it here."

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