Mul­ti­ple har­vests drive Afghan opium boom

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

With jin­gling poppy seeds hid­den in his pouch, Hel­mand farmer Ne­mat­ul­lah si­dled out of Tale­ban ter­ri­tory to ex­plain how he struck goldtwo ad­di­tional opium har­vests a year, which could fur­ther roil Afghanistan’s con­flict. Afghanistan has all the trap­pings of a narco-state, with opium pro­duc­tion the lifeblood of the Tale­ban in­sur­gency-from the tra­di­tional spring har­vest alone edg­ing to­wards a record high. Farm­ers such as Ne­mat­ul­lah are now reap­ing two more crops-in mid­sum­mer and au­tumn-in parts of the volatile south, with ex­perts cit­ing ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied seeds and bold farm­ing ex­per­i­ments as irrigation tech­niques im­prove and erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts col­lapse.

“We used to have one an­nual poppy har­vest-we now have three,” said Ne­mat­ul­lah, a young farmer from the in­sur­gency-wracked district of Ka­jaki in north­ern Hel­mand. “Hel­mand has a lot of war, a lot of land, and very lit­tle em­ploy­ment ex­cept fight­ing for the Tale­ban. Pop­pies are a bless­ing-it now gives us work through­out the year.” Ne­mat­ul­lah snuck out of his vil­lage, a Tale­ban hot­bed, to meet AFP in the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Lashkar Gah, bring­ing with him a hand­ful of ivory-col­ored poppy seeds that he claimed grow well in the two new sea­sons.

Sourced from lo­cal traders, those seeds shorten the growth cy­cle of the plant to around 70 days com­pared to the usual five to six months, with largely the same qual­ity of opium resin, mul­ti­ple farm­ers said. “Some parts of Hel­mand plant twice a year, be­cause of the fa­vor­able cli­mate, but three poppy sea­sons would be thanks to ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied seeds,” said Je­lena Bjel­ica, a re­searcher with the Afghanistan An­a­lysts Net­work. “The seeds are be­lieved to orig­i­nate in China where le­gal opium cul­ti­va­tion is un­der­taken for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal use,” Bjel­ica said, adding it was un­clear who was be­hind their dis­tri­bu­tion in Afghanistan.

Tale­ban as ‘god­fa­thers’

Pink-and-white poppy blooms, which in some ar­eas grow within eye­shot of govern­ment build­ings, help bankroll the Tale­ban’s na­tion­wide in­sur­gency and present an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the Afghan state. The Tale­ban, widely likened to a drug car­tel, earn up to $1.2 bil­lion an­nu­ally from tax­ing poppy farm­ers alone, Western of­fi­cials say. The new crops could fur­ther swell in­sur­gent cof­fers, un­der­scor­ing the stun­ning fail­ure of the multi-bil­lion-dol­lar US war on drugs in Afghanistan as it pur­sued a war on ter­ror there. It could en­hance not just their fi­nan­cial mus­cle to re­cruit more fight­ers but also sway cor­rupt Afghan forces. “Imag­ine if our sol­diers get 10,000 Pak­istani ru­pees to de­fend govern­ment check­points, our en­emy has the ca­pac­ity to pay 50,000 ru­pees to aban­don the same check­points,” a se­nior Hel­mand se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said, re­fer­ring to the new crops. “It’s a very wor­ry­ing sit­u­a­tion.” Opium re­mains an eco­nomic linch­pin for many farm­ers, who ap­par­ently have a strong pref­er­ence for cul­ti­va­tion in ar­eas un­der Tale­ban con­trol. The UN says the in­sur­gents act “more like ‘god­fa­thers’ than a ‘govern­ment in wait­ing’”. The new poppy crops are re­ported in north­ern Hel­mand dis­tricts known for cooler sum­mers such as Nawzad, Musa Qala, San­gin and Ka­jaki-al­most en­tirely un­der Tale­ban con­trol-as well as some restive ar­eas of neigh­bor­ing Kan­da­har, Uruz­gan and Zabul prov­inces.

“Diver­si­fi­ca­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion by farm­ers in­cludes the move to three opium poppy crops per year,” said David Mans­field, au­thor of “A State Built on Sand: How opium un­der­mined Afghanistan”. “Cheaper tech­nol­ogy is a dom­i­nat­ing fac­tor that has al­lowed these ad­vance­ments.” The sec­ond and third crops re­quire al­most daily irrigation, and farm­ers were ben­e­fit­ing with im­proved ac­cess to water pumps and even so­lar-pow­ered tube wells, Mans­field said. But the yields are limited as the crop ma­tures quickly. Mans­field es­ti­mates that cul­ti­va­tion of the sec­ond crop is likely to be un­der 10,000 hectares, while not much is known about the third.

Farm­ers in­ter­viewed by AFP voiced con­fi­dence about greater yields over the com­ing years, with many em­bold­ened to ex­per­i­ment fur­ther fol­low­ing a ces­sa­tion of the govern­ment’s costly erad­i­ca­tion drive. Eu­pho­ria erupted some months ago in Kan­da­har’s moun­tain­ous Shah Wali Kot district when a farmer prac­tic­ing crop ro­ta­tion sought to plant onions af­ter the spring poppy har­vest. With irrigation, over time the soil, still rich in resid­ual opium seeds, gave rise to poppy stalks. “It caused a sen­sa­tion,” said Mo­ham­mad Qasim, an opium farmer from Hel­mand’s Mar­jah district. “Peo­ple talked about it as if they had un­earthed a gold mine: ‘Poppy grows in the off sea­son too’.” — AFP

LASHKAR GAH: Poppy farmer Nehmat­ul­lah, 34, holds poppy seeds on the palm of his hand dur­ing an in­ter­view with AFP in his home in Lashkar Gah, Hel­mand prov­ince. —AFP

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