Letter from Helmand ‘Hearing with their eyes’
‘Hearing with their eyes’ – giving Helmand farmers hope.
This month sees the successful conclusion of the Helmand Provincial Governor’s seasonal ‘Governor-Led Eradication’ campaign. It is a tool in the fight against opium poppy cropping in Helmand grown by impoverished tenant farmers in the fertile irrigation zone either side of the Helmand River. Juma Gul, a poor tenant farmer of about 6 jerabs of land (about half an acre ) grows poppy not because he supports a campaign to fill the West with heroin, but simply because he can sell the raw opium to farm-gate buyers to raise money to support his wife and 6 children. Growing and selling it can help him provide for his large family.
90% of the heroin in the streets of North and West Yorkshire is derived from opium that comes from Afghanistan. And 90% of Afghanistan’s opium-producing poppy is grown here in Helmand Province. Smuggled out of Helmand and into neighbouring countries, the production of heroin from opium is as straightforward and simple as the health-wrecking effect is on the addicted consumers.
The opium poppy is a normal crop just like any other – the farmer makes planting decisions, sows it, uses fertilizer on it, nurtures it, harvests the opium from the poppy, sells it to farm-gate buyers, and makes enough money to feed his family and eke out an existence for a few more months. At his farm gate, Juma Gul is paid the equivalent of $170 a kilo, for each kilo of wet opium his half an acre of poppy crop can yield.
If the poppy seed is robust, and the plants flourish, he can lance each bulb up to 4 times throughout the month to collect the wet opium that oozes out. This wet opium is what he sells. From the cash proceeds he pays back some of the money he borrowed to buy the fertilizer. But it still leaves him enough to ensure he can buy food and provisions for the months ahead.
The buyer then dries out the wet opium and sells it on to the organised narcotics gangs who then process the dry opium into heroin, at makeshift rural laboratories secreted in rural locations. These simple labs can be set up and dismantled swiftly to avoid detection. By this stage the kilo-price sold to the narco-smugglers reaches about $800. Once it leaves Helmand on the narcotics rat-lines into Europe, the kilo of pure heroin can fetch a price of some $5,000 on the European illegal narcotics market. The street price of this same kilo can be several thousand pounds more than the $170 the farmer sold it for, back in Helmand.
But thanks to robust Afghan Government counter narcotics policies, Juma Gul may not have to grow opium poppy to feed his family any more. He has hope of alternative crops. This is thanks to a new two-pronged approach by the Government to the poppy issue.
Last autumn the Afghan Government formed a special national anti-drugs law enforcement body called the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan. This new national police force is trained and mentored by international narcotics police officers in modern drug detection and law enforcement methods. And it is disrupting the narco gangs, making arrests, and putting pressure on their hitherto trouble-free operations.
At the same time, the National Government is helping its Provincial Governments provide an alternative livelihoods programme to tenant farmers like Juma Gul. The Provincial Governor-led Eradication Programme will target fields of full grown poppy and cut them down, just before the harvesting of the poppy bulbs for opium starts. This act denies insurgents and criminal gangs from their raw supplies of local opium here in Helmand.
The alternative livelihood programme then steps in by delivering agronomic training and advice, subsidised food and licit cash crop seeds and fertilizer packs to tenant farmers. Sure, ask any farmer to adopt different farming practices to what he has been doing for years, and they’ll be reluctant to change. But actually here in Helmand, the battle is half won anyway.
This is because most tenant and landed farmers will grow opium poppy as an insurance cash crop, but they also grow food crops such as wheat, maize, mung beans and legumes as well. Helmandi farmers such as Juma Gul are now ‘hearing with their eyes’ that they have real and tangible options other than being slaves to the narco gangs.
Part of the alternative livelihoods programme, is the emerging and growing wheat seed distribution programme. This programme gives farmers an option to buy-in, at subsidised cost, to a winter wheat programme. Both tenant and landed farmers can apply to buy packages of drought-tolerant wheat seed and fertilizer so that they can grow winter wheat and carry on growing wheat the following spring, instead of planting poppy. And with increasing security across the districts of Helmand, access to markets to sell their produce is hugely improved since I was in Helmand in 2009.
International agronomics experts and international non-government organisations are also helping with this effort here in Helmand Province. And with the growth of demonstration farms and an expanding agricultural college farm unit at the Provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, Juma Gul has real hope that this is the last year he will have to grow opium poppy. He smiles as he acknowledges that those who ignore Government alternative livelihoods help, are being pushed out into the Helmand dasht – or desert – if they want to keep growing and harvesting opium poppy. And there’s so little water there.
So as the increasingly desperate narco gangs illegal trade withers in the desert, so Juma Gul’s hopes for his family and his future, flourish. He ‘hears with his eyes’ that times are changing for the better at long last.