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Letter from Helmand ‘Hearing with their eyes’

July 20, 2011

‘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.

Opium poppy. Picture: MOD 2011

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.

Afghan Farmer. Picture: Si Ethell MOD 2011

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.

An Afghan Farmer. Picture: Iggy Roberts MOD 2011

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Priscilla Dicketts permalink
    July 20, 2011 17:52

    To change age old habits things have to start slowly. But by growing what can sustain the family food wise as well as making money is excellent. I gather that Helmand is also very suitable for Saffron which is always in demand and fetches a high price. What would cotton do out there?

  2. July 21, 2011 03:30

    Are there any figures to show how effective the eradication programme is being?
    The UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2011 Report on Opium shows:
    * That total farm-gate values of opium have risen dramatically from 2009 (US$430) to 2010 (US$605).
    * That the number of houselholds involved in opium production in Afghnaistan has risen from 40,000 in 2009 to 47,000 in 2010.
    * That opium eradication in 2009 amounted to 5,351 hectares, yet in 2010 only 2,316 hectares were eradicated.
    * Opium cultivation in 2009 was conducted on 103,000 hectares, yet was still at 100,250 hectares in 2010.
    These figures suggest not much has changed…..comment?

  3. July 21, 2011 13:10

    Take a farmer in the hills of Wales and tell him he can do something different, safer, and still make the same living, he will not believe you. Show him and he may be a bit more interested. Show him again and he might give it a try. If it works…and he will take time to make up his mind when it is truly working, he may tell a friend…and so on. True there may be more acreage growing poppies now as the statistics tell us, but who measures the farmers who are thinking about it…trying it out tentatively…this will take time, but at least it has started.
    I hope this can really make a difference…I hope and pray…and thank those who have made it even remotely possible to try.

    • July 21, 2011 18:00

      Sally J. I agree the sentiment but we are not talking about Welsh farmers but Afghans who, are unlike anything you know; culturally we are on different planets, behaviourally we are on different planets and sadly no amount of praying or hoping that they’ll ‘see the light’ is going to make the blindest bit of difference to their way of thinking.
      Afghans don’t give a hoot about drugs and its effects on our ‘civilised’ culture – it’s a crop that pays the bills very handsomely and there will, unless the West (and Russia and China) thinks of something radical to change the demand for opium, always be a market. Money is what is important to most Afghans (rich and poor) – note the billions of $ (and millions of £) that have been sunk and lost into the campaign so far, a lot of it unaccounted for. A few schools, roads, and water treatment plants help on a humanitarian level, but strategically, as the UN figures have shown thoughout the last 10 years, nothing has measurably changed. I suggest nothing will in our lifetimes. I’ll keep praying too.

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