Afghanistan

WHERE OPIUM IS LIFE

For poor farmers, there’s no choice but to grow poppies, says ADNAN R. KHAN

June 20 2005
Afghanistan

WHERE OPIUM IS LIFE

For poor farmers, there’s no choice but to grow poppies, says ADNAN R. KHAN

June 20 2005

WHERE OPIUM IS LIFE

Afghanistan

For poor farmers, there’s no choice but to grow poppies, says ADNAN R. KHAN

THE FIRST TIME I ever laid eyes on opium poppies was in the Jegdalek region of Afghanistan—the flowers like pink and red starbursts spread over the earth, thick-bearded and reticent farmers gingerly tending to them. They would lance the ripe bulbs with a small multi-bladed knife called a neshtar so the raw opium could seep out overnight and be collected the next day. The valley was serene and practically dripping with the brown ooze that would one day become heroin. It was a mere 60 km southeast of Kabul, but so isolated and encircled by landmines that it may as well have been another country altogether. I remember it well, because I was chased out of Jegdalek by an opium farmer who was none too pleased about me taking photographs of his fields.

That was three years ago, in the spring of 2002, shortly after the Taliban had been routed by the world’s armies. Local families, exiled to Pakistan for more than a decade, were trickling back to their devastated homes in the Jegdalek area’s patchwork of sheltered valleys. It was an exciting time for many of the returnees, who had been living in limbo, neither fully accepted nor fully rejected by the Pakistanis. Returning to their land symbolized a new beginning. But has one actually taken place? The fighting has continued, especially in the east and south of the country where the Taliban still enjoys support. It rises and falls with the seasons, tapering off in winter and starting again with the thaw. This spring has been especially bloody, with the death rate of U.S. soldiers since March higher than it has been in Iraq— 1.6 per 1,000, compared to .9.

Opium cultivation has also been on the rise. A near bumper harvest last year brought Afghanistan to the brink of becoming a “narco-state,” forcing newly elected President Hamid Karzai’s fragile government to confront the illicit drug trade, which by some estimates could now account for about half of the country’s GDP. All of the country’s provinces, according to a 2004 survey

by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, are now involved to some degree in poppy cultivation. Over 356,000 families, comprising 10 per cent of Afghanistan’s 23 million people, benefit from drug production and trafficking. Karzai has vowed to make the fight against opium the top priority of his fledgling government. A counternarcotics unit has been set up, as well as a ministry to deal exclusively with the issue. Afghans have been warned: end the practice or face the consequences.

ARE PEOPLE listening? On my return visit to the area, at first glance it would seem so. Initially, there is not a single sign of illicit drug activity, only wheat fields spread over the undulating terrain. But my local guide tells me the poppy fields are out there, in sheltered dells and along terraced hillsides out of the view of authorities. Last year’s statistics show how out of control the industry has become: a record 131,000 hectares devoted to cultivation, a 4,200-tonne yield accounting for 80 per cent of the world’s opium, and rivalling the industry’s peak output in 1999. It could have been much higher if not for

disease, poor weather and chemical spraying by counter-narcotics forces.

The village of Jegdalek is picturesque, nestled into the rolling foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range. It has expanded since the last time I was here, my guide tells me, from around 150 people to nearly 1,000, though no one can tell you the exact number. At the police checkpoint, I’m greeted by the commander, Faizal Rabi, who remembers me. Cups of sweet green tea are passed around as the conversation quickly turns political. “The government doesn’t do anything for us,” Rabi says. “It’s like they’ve forgotten we exist.” We move to a shaded patch of grass beside an irrigation canal as other villagers gather around. Children poke their heads out from the waist-high wheat, intrigued by a stranger in their midst.

LAST YEAR, the country produced a 4,200tonne yield—accounting for fully 80 per cent of the world’s opium

“How do they expect us to survive?” adds one farmer. The inference is clear: government negligence has forced the locals, most of whom were refugees who returned to the valley possessing little more than the clothes on their backs, $200 from the UN and a small plot of land in the mountains, into growing more poppies. “We know it’s wrong, but there is no other way.” He may be right. In the Jegdalek area, dry riverbeds still make up the majority of roads. There is no running

water except for the few underground springs that irrigate the fields, no electricity, no medical facilities and no school, although one is under construction. Afghanistan’s central government, a short commute away by Western standards but a world apart in this isolated environment, is something abstract and distant, “over there,” as one farmer puts it, gesturing over the foothills.

But there is one other way in Jegdalek to make a living: gem mining. The region’s rubies are prized by dealers around the world,

and local miners have been digging them out of the rugged mountains for as long as farmers have been planting poppy seeds. But the government recently banned mining, as it tries to draft new legislation to regulate the industry. Rights are the key issue—and it’s a contentious one, given that locals whose families have been mining for generations fear being pushed out. “The mines of Afghanistan belong to the Afghan government,” says Mandar Khel, senior adviser to the minister of mines and industry in Kabul. “We reserve the right to exploit the resources of this country in the most productive and efficient ways possible.” The new law, says Khel, will set out the procedure for companies to buy rights to exploit gem deposits. Afghan companies will be able to bid for rights, but foreign companies will also be welcome. “We want to make the procedure as fair as possible,” Khel adds.

For people in Jegdalek, the current ban means that, for now at least, the area’s second viable economic activity is illegal as well. On my second day in the valley, my guide takes me into the mountains to visit some of the ruby mines. It’s a tough journey for the 4x4 we’ve hired from one of the village elders, navigating through minefields and at one point past an exposed Soviet-era bomb poking out from an eroded hillside. The danger from unexploded ordnance has set a limit on the areas available to the locals for farming and mining, making sites that are available that much more valuable.

And, consequently, much more contentious. “These mines are ours,” says a worker at one base camp. “No one can take them away from us. The government just wants its own engineers to extract the rubies for its own benefit.” A small group has gathered for lunch, beside a fire on a ridge overlooking a narrow vale. Down below is one small patch of poppies, which the miners say is only to keep them busy when they’re not mining. “We haven’t needed to farm poppies in the past,” says one. “The rubies have been enough income for us. But now, with the ban, less people are mining and so there is less being extracted. We are suffering because of it.”

Of this small band, only one says he has farmed poppies on any significant scale. But the men say more of them will have to take up the illegal activity if the government actually locks them out of their mines. The miners say the government should try to increase local mining capacity, giving workers training in modern techniques and proper equipment in order to increase the yield of rubies and decrease the time and effort needed to extract them manually. But the central government is not budging. “I don’t understand why Afghanistan doesn’t make use of its local miners to set up a grassroots mining industry,” said one diplomat at the Canadian embassy in Kabul on condition of anonymity. “Canada has the expertise to build local capacity for mining, but it just seems like the Afghan government doesn’t want to go down that road.”

Mining rubies was a fallback before Kabul starting drafting regulations

MOST OBSERVERS agree that viable alternatives to poppy farming are the only long-term solution to Afghanistan’s drug problem. Policing, no matter how tough the Kabul government talks, has been ineffective, in large part due to massive corruption. In the Jegdalek valley, all of the police officers are locals whose families have a stake in the poppy fields. Everyone knows where the fields are, and most can also tell you how to harvest the gummy paste that will eventually become opium, feeding the world’s heroin market. Opium is not used here—drugs in Jegdalek are limited to hashish—but they know what a menace it is. And yet, there is no other way.

The next morning I meet Audoo Jabar, a 35-year-old poppy farmer tending his family’s fields. Like others, he is wary of my questions but soon agrees to talk. “We want to find other ways to make a living,” Jabar says, scraping opium from the poppy bulbs onto a small palette. “But look around you, and tell me what else we can do?” With no infrastructure to speak of, Jegdalek is for all intents and purposes cut off from the markets in Kabul and those farther afield. Even if the farmers were to grow other crops, there would be no way to get them out of the valley on any appreciable scale. Jabar, who has relocated his fields to a more remote swath of land since the government crackdown, insists that the local poppy farmers are not profiteers but hard-working men who have a right to do whatever it takes to feed their families.

Despite the overall success of the industry, Jabar says small-scale farmers like himself made little profit per hectare last year be-

cause of poor weather, including drought. This year, on the other hand, the area’s poppies are looking good, boosted by improved rainfall and no government spraying. The projected land usage for the opium industry for 2005 may be about 30 per cent less than last year’s widespread cultivation, a decline the Afghan counter-narcotics ministry attributes to its fight against the industry. But a healthy crop could offset the

decrease in actual cultivation and amount to an overall increase in the opium yield.

That prospect has Afghanistan’s counternarcotics forces scrambling. A recent leaked memo from a U.S. embassy worker criticizing Karzai for not taking the drug issue seriously enough has put the Afghan government on the defensive. “You will have to ask the Americans why they would say such a thing,” says Gen. Mohammed Daoud, the deputy interior minister in charge of narcotics. He insists that the fight against poppies has been a success. But in the hidden valleys of Jegdalek, the farmers tell a very different story. “They don’t say anything to us about the poppies,” says Muhammad Gul, an elder of a small poppy farming community an hour’s drive southeast of Jegdalek village, referring to the troops who occasionally patrol the area. “They see this guy farming, but what are they going to say to him? Will they tell him to stop? Then what will happen? Poppies are his life.”

The farmers themselves say the reason for any decline in poppy cultivation has more to do with other factors, among them a depressed world opium market. But there’s still real money in the business. A farmer

would have to plant 12 hectares of wheat to profit as much as he would from cultivating one hectare of opium. But even then, the profits (around US$4,600 per hectare a year) are minuscule in comparison to the lucrative processing and trafficking industries.

IT’S LATE afternoon in Jegdalek village, and the farmers and miners are returning home from their work in the mountains. Be-

fore dinner, locals settle into small groups on a cool patch of grass, light up some hashish, and discuss the day’s events. One miner who has just returned after three days in the ruby mines says that many have stayed away from the business, fearful of arrest and frustrated by the lack of equipment. “Last year we had hundreds of people doing mining work,” he says. “We found some nice pieces then, but this year there are only about 50 men willing to take the risk. That’s just not enough hands to dig through all of that rock.” Dynamite fuses, he says, are still lit by hand, forcing miners to scramble nearly 200 m out of a mine before the explosion. Rocks are removed manually—in this industry with so much economic potential.

And it is the potential that strikes me, as it did three years ago. At that time, though, I was hopeful, seeing the lush valleys and rich mines, as hopeful as the locals stepping back onto the soil they’d abandoned for the relative safety of Pakistan. But now, hope may be turning into something more bitter. The people of Jegdalek came home expecting a better life. Instead, they face an even more uncertain future. CT1