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Monday, 25 February, 2002, 15:25 GMT
Desperate Afghans seek illicit harvest
Poppy
Afghanistan's poppy fields are filling up again
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By Marcus George
BBC News Online's correspondent in Kabul
line

In the centre of Jalalabad, a town near to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a sign erected by the Taleban warns the public of the danger of drugs.

Put up during the Taleban crackdown on the production of opium, it is now irrelevant. The strict regime has been washed away and with it the strict imposition of their ban.

Lush green fields roll out in front of a village east of Jalalabad, just kilometres from the border. Thousands of poppy plants were sown just weeks ago.

Sign
The Taleban banned opium production
One small patch had received a head start. Towering above the rest of the crop at over one metre high, pods bulge with life, waiting to be bled of their valuable commodity.

Poppies are this year's future for the village. Last year the Taleban ban resulted in the destruction of 80% of the crops in a bid to win the approval of the international community.

Back in production

However the severe drought put paid to wheat crops which dried up in the soaring temperatures and with the vacuum created after the fall of the Taleban things have changed.

Farmers have taken the opportunity to return to the illicit production of opiates which earns them more than 10 times that of conventional crops.

Opium field
The opium fields are being resown
The massive increase in price in months after the 11 September attacks on America provided another enticement.

But fearing imminent interference by the new government, farmers are becoming increasingly anxious.

Growing poppies has been declared illegal by the interim administration and day by day they await the destruction of their crop.

Welcomed at first, my arrival in the village began to cause a stir. Within minutes the village elder was told I was looking at the precious crop and soon enough I had become persona non grata and told to leave.

"You have to understand," he said. "If the government find out, they will come and destroy this crop and if that happens many people here will be forced to go to Pakistan to earn money for their families."

Cycle of debt

A short drive north of Jalalabad lies another small cultivating area.

The land, owned by a local commander, was being cultivated by tenant farmer Gul Mohammad who lived with his family in a nearby mud-built house with his family of 12.

Gul Mohammed
Gul Mohammed sees little other way of providing for his family
Over $1,000 in debt, Gul Mohammad was hoping that the crop would produce a good opium harvest and provide him with $5,000 to share between himself and his landlord.

But like many others, he fears the destruction of the poppies by the government:

"I don't want to grow poppies. It saddens me that I have to. This is an illegal plant and contrary to Islam. I want the government to help us, pay us some money.

"But they have not given us a penny so far. Unless the foreigners come here to the field to give money, we will get nothing. If they give cash to the authorities they will just put it in their pockets."

"If there's no help for us, we'll carry on and we'll grow three times as much next year."

Assistance

The government says help is coming. The interim administration has set up a drug control commission to look at ways of reducing drug production.

The Agriculture Ministry is carrying out surveys across the country in an effort to find alternative income for farmers who turn their back on the production of opium.

However the United Nations Drug Control Programme sees the only way to eradicate the growth of poppies is with large development programmes to wean farmers from the most profitable cash crop in the region.

And until the plans and programme are turned into reality and support pledged to farmers finally arrives, poppy farmers will have little incentive to cultivate anything else.

See also:

25 Feb 02 | South Asia
US drops Afghan drug sanctions
21 Feb 02 | South Asia
UN concern over Afghan drug revival
04 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The heroin trail
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