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Saturday, May 9, 1998 Published at 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK

Afghanistan's opium harvest

In Afghanistan, childrens' toys are fashioned from opium by-products

It is harvest time again for growers of opium in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a region now rivalling South East Asia as the world's biggest source of heroin, the drug derived from the opium poppy plants. While much of the South East Asian crop finds its way to the United States, Europe is the main destination for heroin coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan and the British government has just launched a new crackdown on the drug, alarmed that usage is increasing. But why is opium grown so freely and widely? The BBC's South Asia correspondent Mike Wooldridge has been finding out:

Just before the message was being driven home afresh in Britain about the need to keep vulnerable students out of the heroin pushers' clutches, I was in a school in Afghanistan looking out over fields in which ripening opium plants were swaying gently in the sultry breeze.

The irony of the situation was stark. Here was a community which apparently saw opium as just another crop.

The people lancing the poppy heads to release the unappealing brown extract that is eventually refined into heroin, were ordinary farmers who looked as far removed from dangerous drug traffickers as you could imagine.

[ image: The UK's biggest heroin hauls yet were recorded in 1997]
The UK's biggest heroin hauls yet were recorded in 1997
The opium harvesting was part of the normal pattern of life for the village children. The same kind of children playing the same kind of games as those needing increased protection from heroin in western Europe.

Nothing captured it all more forcefully than the sight of a young boy in a nearby village pushing along one of those simple homemade toys with wheels and a long handle that you find across so much of the world. In this case the wheels were made of the bulbous heads of two opium plants and a stalk served as the handle.

Between these villages on the mountain fringe plains of Afghanistan, and the peddler of heroin in Britain and elsewhere, there's a shadowy chain of people, beginning with traders in local bazaars who buy the opium.

It is turned into heroin along the way in so-called factories that may be nothing more than a shack, going up in value of course at every stage.

But if the traffickers make the biggest profits, even the growers do well out of opium, which is precisely why the efforts so far to wean them off opium cultivation and to persuade them to grow other crops have been of such limited success.

One 20-year-old farmer said he could get twice as much for his opium as for his wheat. But did he know and think about the damage it could do to anyone who became addicted to it.

He threw such questions back. "I will stop growing opium," he said, "once there's some development here.

"And if the west wanted to stop the opium trade it should remember it had helped to make Afghanistan unstable by pouring in arms some years back."

It was much the same story from the teachers at the village school: the school with three walls standing - no roof and no classrooms.

In the days before Taleban controlled this part of Afghanistan there had been a drive against opium. There was the promise of a new school among other things in return for switching to other crops. The village kept its part of the bargain, the teachers said but the much needed new school never materialised so the opium started to be cultivated again even by a couple of the teachers.

Who should be surprised, they said, when they earn seven dollars a month. Taleban, not exactly renowned for tolerance, do not seem to be over-exercised about this opium growing even though they say it's an un-Islamic thing to do.

A Taleban drugs control official suggested it was as much for the west to stop people buying heroin as it was for his burdened regime to stop the supply at its source. They were making some progress he claimed but the reality was that the villagers needed the money.

In some places Taleban levy a tax on the proceeds of the opium crop but they deny media reports that this nets them a small fortune to pursue their conflict with their opponents of the northern alliance.

The international community accepts that farmers are only likely to stop cultivating opium if they can see the benefits to them of doing so. But frustrated United Nations officials say, in private at least, that this can easily lead to blackmail - the demands simply go on rising.

The UN ran out of patience this year with the opium growers in northwest Pakistan, freezing aid until they agreed to destroy their crops. The Pakistan government decided to display some muscle too, confronting the most defiant growers with armoured cars, artillery and troops.

Coming upon this scene, as I did in one valley, it was easy to believe a latter day Opium War was underway though the big guns stayed silent in the end. In Afghanistan Taleban still have their guns trained on another kind of enemy altogether.

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