Why are we in Afghanistan - it seems to ensure the heroin production reaches record levels ;
HELMAND - Landowner Hajji Fateh Khan lives in one of the most violent districts in Afghanistan, but this spring he says is a happy man as deep-pocketed buyers eye the imminent opium yield from his poppy plantations.
"The year before last, four kilograms of opium was sold for US$200, but now that weight fetches up to $1,000," the farmer from Nad Ali in southern Helmand province said.
"Who does not like more money? And this is the only crop which earns lots of it," he added with a laugh.
Khan has further cause to celebrate his illegal harvest. It was produced not on his own 40-hectare spread of arable farmland, but
rather on a 12-hectare patch he started cultivating in the outlying, government-owned desert. And so far, no one has tried to destroy it.
Not only does the fertile desert soil push up bumper yields once irrigated from deep wells, but Khan says a strong Taliban presence there deters attempts by the authorities to implement eradication.
Provincial officials continue to downplay reports of a jump in prices and production. Following a one-third drop in cultivation nationally since 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime this year also predicts a stable crop in Helmand, which has 70,000 hectares of poppy fields and accounts for an estimated 60% of the world's production of heroin.
But in Helmand's Nad Ali district, the head of the shura (local assembly) committee for social affairs, Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, said the situation is noticeably deteriorating.
"Opium production is increasing this year because the price is high and eradication programs are not as active as last year," he told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "A lot of people are now growing in the desert." Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, who until mid-2008 was Helmand's police chief, also said that according to his information, local poppy farming had increased 20% this year.
"Beside an increase in opium prices, cultivation has also been boosted by other factors like growing administrative corruption in Helmand, insecurity, poverty, usurpation of government-owned land and a rising number of drug traffickers," he said.
A switch-round in opium and wheat prices that occurred in 2008 resulted from grain shortages in Afghanistan and low imports from abroad, pushing the wheat price way above that of the drug.
Now the balance is tipping back in favor of opium, say those who produce it. Farmers in some areas actually cited an increase in government eradication as driving up profits from production.
As well as ramifications for trafficking volumes to Western markets, poppy's see-sawing fortunes are a crucial element in the conflict between the Taliban and international forces. Opium revenues are a chief source of funding for the insurgency.
However, Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand governor, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, remains adamant that there is no marked increase in cultivation and reiterated the intention of the authorities to stamp out poppy farming.
According to Ahmadi, the fight against its growth in Helmand rests largely on a three-phased British carrot-and-stick initiative now under way called the Food Zone program.
The first phase supplies farmers with fertilizers and improved seeds for alternative crops. The second includes a public awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of opium, while the third brings prosecutions against those who persist in growing poppy.
"If farmers who have already been assisted through the Food Zone project still cultivate poppy, their poppy fields will be destroyed and they will be detained," Ahmadi said, while also pledging the destruction of fields of farmers who reject the British program.
"This year a considerable decrease will be observed in poppy cultivation," he predicted.
But like other aspects of government here, the plan to break the opium trade is vulnerable to localized corruption.
While a considerable chunk of the proceeds from poppy cultivation goes into the Taliban's coffers, corrupt law enforcement and government officials also feed off this giant industry.
"We aren't alone in this business," Hajji Baridada, a poppy farmer in Gereshk district, told IWPR. "The Taliban tell us to grow poppy and that they will protect it from the government by planting mines.
"They then take US$600 to 1,200 from us for each deep well we use. Then local [army or militia] commanders come and tell us that they will protect our poppy fields but we will have to give them one kilogram of opium for every 2,000 square meters planted.
"Then the police also come and take their share. We no longer know what we should do."
Standing just over one meter tall on thick green stems, the immature poppy seed pods are slit and drained of their milky latex sap which then dries to a sticky brown opium residue.
This contains up to 12% morphine, which can then be chemically processed into heroin. Production facilities are readily accessible to most small farmers with some modest start-up capital.
But for another Helmand farmer, Hajji Mawladad, paying off all sides got too much. Eventually, he decided to turn his back on the opium trade and grow only wheat this year with help from the British program.
"Farming poppy is a great headache, because there is fear of destruction of the field on one hand and the cuts local commanders receive on the other," he said.
In a bid to step up pressure on farmers whose fields enjoy Taliban protection, Helmand's new chief of police, Asadullah Sherzad, told a recent news conference that growers would answer for any harm inflicted on his subordinates.
"We will hold responsible any farmer on whose land a mine harms one of my officers," Sherzad declared.
Despite such warnings, enforcement prospects are still weak in remote rural areas where Taliban control is strong. Even aerial eradication is no guarantee of success, because unless farmers can be reached to offer an alternative livelihood, wholesale destruction of their crops can trigger a dangerous backlash.
Hajji Zaqum, a poppy growing landlord in Helmand's much fought-over Sangin district, said government eradication of fields would only strengthen the insurgents.
"I can say with confidence that if people's poppy fields in Sangin are destroyed, they will go over to the Taliban and fully support them," he said.
Regarding those like the landowner Khan who cultivate poppy in government-owned desert areas, the governor's spokesman, Ahmadi, said they could expect no leniency for having broken the law on two counts.
"The government will destroy their fields, but will not provide them with any kind of assistance," he said.
But farmers who expressly moved their operations that far into areas controlled by the Taliban clearly did not do so on a whim and will not be easily deterred.
Unlike the overworked green farming areas by the canals and rivers, the desert soil is highly fertile and can be brought to life using wells bored 100 m or deeper and served by generator-powered water pumps. Once irrigation is steady and the poppies take root, a superior grade of drug bounty flows.
"I am happy about my cultivation this year because on the one hand it is in the desert and on the other the opium is very good quality and strong," Khan said.
Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.
(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)