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Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Tuesday, 11 August 2009 02:17 UK

Afghan farmers recall poppy riches

Afghan farmers harvest their wheat crop north of Kabul on July 8, 2009
A good snowfall and adequate rains have resulted in a good harvest

For the first time in decades, Afghanistan will be self-sufficient in wheat. The BBC's Bilal Sarwary inspects the harvest of farmers who gave up poppy farming to grow wheat and other crops and asks if they have any regrets.

It's noon on a hot summer's day.

Sheen Goal Raza Kar is busy working on his field in the village of Gandomak in Sherzad district, 55km (34 miles) from the eastern city of Jalalabad.

"I had a good harvest of wheat, tomatoes, potatoes and watermelon this year because of the snowfall and rain," says the tall bearded former poppy farmer.

"But nothing beats the poppy," he says.

Lawlessness

The opium trade in Afghanistan is a highly profitable enterprise, deeply woven into the rural life of this war-torn country, and there are many reasons why farmers prefer to grow it.

Chief among them is the lack of infrastructure, such as insufficient irrigation canals, poor roads and widespread drought.

The farmers cannot cultivate wheat, maize or cotton without a sufficient water supply.

Sheen Goal Raza Kar
Sheen Goal gave up poppy farming two years ago

And, as the writ of the central government is restricted to Kabul, most rural areas are mired in lawlessness.

They are the playing fields for drug kingpins and the Taliban who urge the local population to stick with an easy, abundant crop that always pays well.

Sheen Goal was among the hundreds of farmers in Sherzad - a mountainous district in Nangarhar, once counted among Afghanistan's biggest poppy producing provinces - who gave up poppy cultivation more than two years ago and embraced other crops after they were promised a road, an irrigation channel and a clinic for their village.

The farmers did so despite a threat from the Taliban, who wanted them to continue with poppy cultivation.

The farmers have largely kept their part of the bargain.

But the government has failed, says Sheen Goal.

"We were lucky this year as there was plenty of rain and snowfall. If it doesn't snow and rain next year, we won't have a good harvest," the farmer says pointing to the empty irrigation channel which the central government promised, but never built.

Apathy

Seven months ago, Sheen Goal was a disappointed and bitter man.

A drought had wiped out his crops and government apathy had dashed farmers' hopes.

Farmers like Sheen Goal also complain about the shortage of seeds for alternative crops such as wheat and corn.

Several farmers say they also do not have access to fertilisers - essential for a good harvest.

Crops
Farmers say they want the government help with irrigation

"I guarantee that no farmer will grow poppies if they were helped with irrigation and fertilisers," says Rashid, a farmer in Gandomak.

Like any dry, landlocked country a key problem throughout the Nangarhar countryside is the lack of irrigation water.

Nangarhar's remote valleys, like most of Afghanistan, lack a reliable water system for irrigation, which makes the area unsuitable for growing crops such as wheat.

During a visit to several remote and mountainous villages in Sherzad district, complaints among the farmers and tribal chiefs focused on the lack of government authority and widespread lack of water.

"If there is no security, no irrigation canals, fertilisers or seeds, people will start growing poppy again," said a provincial official who asked not to be named.

Experts say that a majority of Afghans reside in rural areas and, because of the high unemployment rate, thousands of people are jobless.

Poverty encourages many farmers to opt for the most profitable crop - the poppy.

Optimistic

One tribal elder in Nangarhar says he has a piece of advice for the Afghan government and the international community: "Winning the hearts and minds means giving farmers their day-to-day needs.

"This will require rebuilding Afghanistan's shattered institutions and capacity building should be at the heart of this grand policy."

But Sheen Goal is still optimistic.

The hope stems from the ongoing work on a ring road linking Sherzad to Jalalabad, one of the promises the government made to former poppy farmers.

"We are very happy that work has started on this road and it will be asphalted very soon. It will mean we can sell our things in Jalalabad and Kabul. We are very happy," Sheen Goal said.

"At least one of our problems has been taken care of."

As Afghanistan prepares for a presidential election later this month, Sheen Goal has a list of requests from the future president of Afghanistan.

"We ask them for a road, irrigation canal and a clinic - all are very simple and easy things. I don't know why they think they can't do this for us."



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