Cover Story

Where poppies grow

With renewed fighting, Afghanistan's opium trade-the largest in the world-is a persistent block to security and development

Issue: "Opium wars," May 12, 2007

Afghanistan has received little American press attention lately, with occasional reports focusing on continuing fighting. But the efforts of Malaly Pikar Volpi and other development workers like her may make the difference between defeating the Muslim extremists who make up the Taliban and seeing them gradually reconquer the country.

That's because Afghan poppy fields are a persistent backdrop to the war on terror. The country is the world's largest supplier of the flowers that make opium, producing 90 percent of the drug. Drug dealers refine opium into illegal heroin that ends up largely on Europe's streets. Last year, despite massive aid from the United States and Europe, farmers harvested their largest opium crop in years-and the Taliban often grabbed the profits.

Standing in the gap is Volpi, executive director of the U.S.-Afghanistan Reconstruction Council, a Washington-based nonprofit that is helping to rebuild her original homeland. Born in Kabul, she came to the United States with her parents and trained as an economist. On one return trek through Afghan poppy country she interviewed 500 residents, including many farmers, learning what it might take to contain the opium trade.

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One way tried by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID): Give men cash for clearing irrigation canals or throwing gravel on roads. But such projects do not last long, and men who participate still need to earn as much as possible: "If the main farmer is throwing gravel on a road, his wife is growing poppy," Volpi points out.

The farmers want and need regular income, yet she says they would prefer not to produce opium, since it is haram (forbidden) under Islam. But the temptation is strong: The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that one hectare (about 2 1/2 acres) of poppy can earn an Afghan farmer 10 times more than a cereal crop.

Volpi suggests cutting out aid middlemen and directly providing what farmers desire, such as cold storage or trucks to transport crops. She said they might turn from poppies if they think other crops stand a chance.

Right now, though, farmers who go straight often face economic hardship. One farmer in the heavy poppy-growing province of Badakhshan told Volpi he had a storehouse full of rotting wheat that he could not sell. He had followed the government's instructions not to grow poppy, but a market flooded by Pakistani wheat and popular bleached flour meant the crop's prices were too low. This year, he said, he would plant poppy.

Other farmers grumble about faltering U.S. and official efforts to help them shift to crops such as potatoes. Seeds and fertilizers came too late for the planting season. Poppy, though, is easy to grow, and in dry Afghanistan doesn't need much water. In Badakhshan, aid workers may have to navigate a mountain and muddy roads to deliver a truckload of planting potatoes to farmers. Drug dealers, by contrast, know their farmers already have ready stocks of tiny blue-black poppy seeds.

Last week NATO and Afghan soldiers swept through southern Afghanistan, and in the poppy-laden Sangin Valley they came under attack from heavily armored Taliban fighters. Mortar fire and heavy machine guns greeted British soldiers when they set out on foot patrols between Kandahar and Herat. Traffickers work symbiotically with the Taliban, providing weapons and funding in exchange for protection of drug routes and poppy fields.

Volpi's aid group works heavily in Badakhshan. Unpaved roads often become impassable after mud slides, but the opium trade has well-grooved byways. Smaller drug dealers know farmers and local leaders well because they usually hail from provincial villages in valleys that typically contain several thousand people.

Badakhshan has little Taliban influence, but its isolation means it has been cut off from needed development. Farmers for centuries have cultivated poppy for seeds used in baking bread and for medicinal purposes. They also grow mulberries and walnuts and produce the country's best pistachios.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 wiped out much of Badakhshan's agriculture. The armies cut down trees and forests to ferret out hiding fighters. When Soviet forces left, factional fighting between Afghans, and then the Taliban's 1996 takeover, brought new problems-and poppy dealers operated even more brazenly.

Volpi paints a picture of today's traffickers riding motorcycles, checking on poppy fields, and delivering payments. Dealers ringed by security guards give corrupt officials a share of drug profits. Millions in foreign aid haven't changed the nature of the trade. Before planting, a dealer may decide to pay a farmer $2,000 an acre. He pays half up front and the other half at harvest. Cultivating poppy takes many hands, and women often work alongside men, or grow their own fields as sharecroppers.

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