No more opium means no more money for Afghan villagers

For as long as anyone can remember, there was noneed for paper money in this remote corner of the Hindu Kush. Thecommon currency was what grew in everyone's backyard - opium.

Whenchildren felt like buying candy, they ran into their father's fieldsand returned with a few grams of opium folded inside a leaf. Theirmothers collected it in plastic bags, trading 18 grams for a meter offabric or two liters of cooking oil. Even a visit to the barbershopcould be settled in opium.

But the economy of this village sputtered to a halt last yearwhen the government began aggressively enforcing a ban on opiumproduction. Villagers were not allowed to plant their only cash crop.Now shops are empty and farmers are in debt, as entire communitiesspiral into poverty.

Opium is one of the biggest problems facing this troubledcountry, because it is deeply woven into the fabric of daily life aswell as into the economics of insurgency. Afghanistan supplies 93percent of the world's opium, and it is one of the main sources offunding for the growing Taliban movement.

Yet the government ban on opium is working at bestunevenly. In areas of the country under Taliban control, opiumproduction is going strong. In government-held areas such as Shahran,it has gone down drastically, but at the cost of the livelihood ofhundreds of thousands of people. Their anger is imperiling governmentsupport in one of the few areas of the country that has resisted theTaliban's advance.

"Now we don't even have 10 Afghanis ($0.25) to give ourchildren to buy bubble gum," says opium farmer Abdul Hay. "Before theywould go into the field and collect the money themselves."

TWOYEARS ago, opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, grew onnearly half a million acres in Afghanistan. The harvest was worth about$4 billion, or equal to nearly half the country's GDP in 2007. As muchas a tenth - almost half a billion dollars - went to local strongmen,including the Taliban, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Under intense international pressure, the government redoubledits effort to crack down on opium farmers. By last year, the number ofacres planted with poppy had dropped by a fifth, yet the Taliban'sfinances remained largely untouched. Ninety-eight percent ofAfghanistan's opium is now grown in just seven of the country's 34provinces - all areas under partial or total Taliban control.

Opium was so entrenched in Badakshan province, where Shahran islocated, that it is said Marco Polo sampled it when he passed throughin the 13th century. Until recently, the sloping mountain faces wereawash with pink, purple and magenta poppies, nodding in the wind. Butin the past year, poppy production has gone down 95%.

The villagers here held a meeting and decided two years ago notto plant opium, after government radio messages warned that poppyfields would be destroyed and opium growers jailed. Posters distributedthroughout the area showed a man with his hands bound by the stem ofthe opium poppy.

The villagers say they did as the government told them, andplanted their fields with wheat, barley, mustard and melons. But thesecrops need more care than the tough opium poppy, which will bloom withlittle water or fertilizer.

Most of the wheat fields yielded little because the farmerscouldn't afford to fertilize the land. Even where yields were decent,farmers say they could have earned between two and 10 times more byplanting the same land with opium.

"See this mustard? It can take care of my family for onemonth," says 25-year-old farmer Abdul Saboor, pulling up a shoot of thegreen plant and snapping it open with his teeth. "When we planted opiumin this same plot, it took care of all our expenses for an entireyear."

THE HOLE in the economy is swallowing up the community, fromthe farmer to the turbaned shopkeepers whose scales used for weighingopium now sit idle.

Every month, shopkeeper Abdul Ahmed used to bring $20,000 worthof goods to sell in the bazaar. It's been four months since his lasttruckload, and he has only sold $1,000. Ahmed is one of 40 tradersleft; there used to be 400.

"We open in the morning and go back at night. No money comesin. No one buys anything," says Ahmed. "There is no money left in thisvillage. Opium is the only income we had."

Villagers say desperation is pushing hundreds to immigrate toneighboring Iran, where they work as day laborers. Farmers throughoutthe region are also sinking deeply into debt. They borrow money to buystaples such as rice and oil, which they used to buy with opium. Theyalso take loans to buy seeds and fertilizer and to rent donkeys to takethe wheat to market - an expense opium did not bring because all thelocal shops accepted it as legal tender.

ON A hill flanking the highway in Argu District, a four-hourdrive southeast of here, a thin farmer is bent over cutting wheat witha hand-held sickle. Abdul Mahin says he is several hundred dollars indebt to the man who sold him fertilizer.

"If we plant two bags of wheat, then we'll have just enoughmoney to buy the seeds to plant another two bags of wheat," says thegray-bearded farmer. "We're going backwards. Of course we're angry atthe government."

A small number of farmers in other towns are planting opiumdespite the ban. Most are seeing their fields destroyed, as governmentagents intensify patrols.

Farmer Abdulhamid, 55, says he has only rain-fed land, and noneof it is irrigated. So he can't grow wheat and barley with muchsuccess. Unless the government helps, he says, he will have to plantopium again.

"We are getting poorer day by day," says Abdulhamid, in thevillage of Pengani. "What should I do? Kill my children so that I don'thave to feed them?"

WHEN FARMERS were asked to stop planting, they were promisedhelp from the government. Badakshan is set to receive $1,000 for eachhectare (roughly 10 dunams) of land freed of poppies - some $10 millionthis year. It's being used to build three clinics and three schools,pave a major road and rebuild six fallen bridges.

Farmers say a distant clinic or bridge is notgoing to feed their children. But counternarcotics experts andgovernment officials respond that the opium ban is necessary.

"Thesepoor farmers are going to get stepped on and get hurt in this effort,"says former Drug Enforcement Agency official Doug Wankel, who organizedthe US counternarcotics effort here in 2003. "But it's a pain that hasto be endured for the good of the masses."

"In the US and the UK, when people do an illegal activity, thepolice stops them, right? This is an illegal act, so we need to stop itin order to enforce the rule of law," says Zalmai Afzali, a spokesmanfor the Ministry of Counternarcotics. He also notes the link to theinsurgency: "I try to explain to the farmer that cultivates poppy thathe is buying a coffin for his child."

YET THE poverty created by getting rid of opium may be stokingterrorism. Nangahar - which became poppy free last year and is held upas an example of government control - has seen a rapid increase inextremism, according to a field study by David Mansfield,counternarcotics consultant for the UN and the World Bank.

By April last year, the province rescinded agreements to limitthe movement of anti-government groups on its border with Pakistan. ByJuly, these groups were believed to have set up bases in four districtsnext to Pakistan. By September, they were attacking governmentbuildings. And by October, there were Taliban checkpoints.

Also, the crackdown in the country's far north is unlikely tostop the flow of opium and money to the Taliban in the south. In Zabul- the home province of Taliban spiritual chief Mullah Omar - poppyproduction grew by 45% last year.

Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, grew somuch opium last year that if it was a separate country, it would rankas the world's top opium producer, according to Gretchen Peters, authorof Seeds of Terror, on how the Taliban is bankrolling itself throughdrug smuggling. Peters says the Taliban's video messages now talk aboutsecuring smuggling routes and protecting poppy plantations.

Poppy fields in Taliban areas are so dangerous that eradicationteams comb them for bombs before trying to destroy them. Last year 78government agents were killed trying to destroy fields in the south. Bycontrast, the worst they faced in Badakshan was crying farmers.

Zainuddin, the head security officer for Darayim district in Badakshan, says he feels awful every time he uproots a poppy field.

"Sometimes I cry as I am hitting the poppies," says Zainuddin,who like many Afghans goes by a single name. "Because I know these arepoor people and I am taking away the only thing they have."

OVER THE past month, dozens of fields have been destroyed inthe mountains of Badakshan. Nasrullah, a 35-year-old farmer, plantedthree small plots of white-and-violet poppies inside a hill of wheat,hoping the taller crop would hide the illegal blossoms.

He stood in silence on a recent morning as nine police officerscrossed a small gulch and climbed the hill. They assaulted his crop,hitting the flowers with long sticks until they fell to the ground. Heput his face in his hands.

"I didn't plant this for my own pleasure," he says. "I plantedthis so that my family could eat. All the rest of this is worthnothing," he says, waving at the wheat. "The choice I have to make nowis either kill myself. Or leave the country."