HELMAND - Landowner Hajji Fateh Khan lives in one of the most violent districts
in Afghanistan, but this spring he says is a happy man as deep-pocketed buyers
eye the imminent opium yield from his poppy plantations.
"The year before last, four kilograms of opium was sold for US$200, but now
that weight fetches up to $1,000," the farmer from Nad Ali in southern Helmand
"Who does not like more money? And this is the only crop which earns lots of
it," he added with a laugh.
Khan has further cause to celebrate his illegal harvest. It was produced not on
his own 40-hectare spread of arable farmland, but
rather on a 12-hectare patch he started cultivating in the outlying,
government-owned desert. And so far, no one has tried to destroy it.
Not only does the fertile desert soil push up bumper yields once irrigated from
deep wells, but Khan says a strong Taliban presence there deters attempts by
the authorities to implement eradication.
Provincial officials continue to downplay reports of a jump in prices and
production. Following a one-third drop in cultivation nationally since 2008,
the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime this year also predicts a stable
crop in Helmand, which has 70,000 hectares of poppy fields and accounts for an
estimated 60% of the world's production of heroin.
But in Helmand's Nad Ali district, the head of the shura (local
assembly) committee for social affairs, Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, said the
situation is noticeably deteriorating.
"Opium production is increasing this year because the price is high and
eradication programs are not as active as last year," he told the Institute for
War and Peace Reporting. "A lot of people are now growing in the desert."
Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, who until mid-2008 was Helmand's police chief, also
said that according to his information, local poppy farming had increased 20%
"Beside an increase in opium prices, cultivation has also been boosted by other
factors like growing administrative corruption in Helmand, insecurity, poverty,
usurpation of government-owned land and a rising number of drug traffickers,"
A switch-round in opium and wheat prices that occurred in 2008 resulted from
grain shortages in Afghanistan and low imports from abroad, pushing the wheat
price way above that of the drug.
Now the balance is tipping back in favor of opium, say those who produce it.
Farmers in some areas actually cited an increase in government eradication as
driving up profits from production.
As well as ramifications for trafficking volumes to Western markets, poppy's
see-sawing fortunes are a crucial element in the conflict between the Taliban
and international forces. Opium revenues are a chief source of funding for the
However, Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand governor, Mohammad Gulab
Mangal, remains adamant that there is no marked increase in cultivation and
reiterated the intention of the authorities to stamp out poppy farming.
According to Ahmadi, the fight against its growth in Helmand rests largely on a
three-phased British carrot-and-stick initiative now under way called the Food
The first phase supplies farmers with fertilizers and improved seeds for
alternative crops. The second includes a public awareness campaign highlighting
the dangers of opium, while the third brings prosecutions against those who
persist in growing poppy.
"If farmers who have already been assisted through the Food Zone project still
cultivate poppy, their poppy fields will be destroyed and they will be
detained," Ahmadi said, while also pledging the destruction of fields of
farmers who reject the British program.
"This year a considerable decrease will be observed in poppy cultivation," he
But like other aspects of government here, the plan to break the opium trade is
vulnerable to localized corruption.
While a considerable chunk of the proceeds from poppy cultivation goes into the
Taliban's coffers, corrupt law enforcement and government officials also feed
off this giant industry.
"We aren't alone in this business," Hajji Baridada, a poppy farmer in Gereshk
district, told IWPR. "The Taliban tell us to grow poppy and that they will
protect it from the government by planting mines.
"They then take US$600 to 1,200 from us for each deep well we use. Then local
[army or militia] commanders come and tell us that they will protect our poppy
fields but we will have to give them one kilogram of opium for every 2,000
square meters planted.
"Then the police also come and take their share. We no longer know what we
Standing just over one meter tall on thick green stems, the immature poppy seed
pods are slit and drained of their milky latex sap which then dries to a sticky
brown opium residue.
This contains up to 12% morphine, which can then be chemically processed into
heroin. Production facilities are readily accessible to most small farmers with
some modest start-up capital.
But for another Helmand farmer, Hajji Mawladad, paying off all sides got too
much. Eventually, he decided to turn his back on the opium trade and grow only
wheat this year with help from the British program.
"Farming poppy is a great headache, because there is fear of destruction of the
field on one hand and the cuts local commanders receive on the other," he said.
In a bid to step up pressure on farmers whose fields enjoy Taliban protection,
Helmand's new chief of police, Asadullah Sherzad, told a recent news conference
that growers would answer for any harm inflicted on his subordinates.
"We will hold responsible any farmer on whose land a mine harms one of my
officers," Sherzad declared.
Despite such warnings, enforcement prospects are still weak in remote rural
areas where Taliban control is strong. Even aerial eradication is no guarantee
of success, because unless farmers can be reached to offer an alternative
livelihood, wholesale destruction of their crops can trigger a dangerous
Hajji Zaqum, a poppy growing landlord in Helmand's much fought-over Sangin
district, said government eradication of fields would only strengthen the
"I can say with confidence that if people's poppy fields in Sangin are
destroyed, they will go over to the Taliban and fully support them," he said.
Regarding those like the landowner Khan who cultivate poppy in government-owned
desert areas, the governor's spokesman, Ahmadi, said they could expect no
leniency for having broken the law on two counts.
"The government will destroy their fields, but will not provide them with any
kind of assistance," he said.
But farmers who expressly moved their operations that far into areas controlled
by the Taliban clearly did not do so on a whim and will not be easily deterred.
Unlike the overworked green farming areas by the canals and rivers, the desert
soil is highly fertile and can be brought to life using wells bored 100 m or
deeper and served by generator-powered water pumps. Once irrigation is steady
and the poppies take root, a superior grade of drug bounty flows.
"I am happy about my cultivation this year because on the one hand it is in the
desert and on the other the opium is very good quality and strong," Khan said.
Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.