Primarily exploited for heroin production, poppy is the Afghan farmer’s “green gold,” accounting for nearly half of this war ravaged nation’s GDP.
Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer of poppy in 2002. By 2007, 8,000 tons of opium crossed the borders of Afghanistan, accounting for 90 percent of the world’s opium production.
Heroin, which is made by refining opium, is an even more lucrative business. A kilo of heroine, worth 3,000 euros in Afghanistan, fetches about 20,000 euros on the Pakistani side of the border.
Afghan heroin makes its way into Western markets via neighboring Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan. According to NATO estimates, Afghanistan accounted for 87 % of the world’s poppy production and 63% of global opium output in 2006.
A total breakdown of the system
Aided by the international community, Kabul has been implementing an alternative livelihood program in an attempt to get Afghan farmers to give up poppy cultivation for alternative crops.
In the eastern province of Nangahar, near the Pakistani border, the governor explains how the program works.
“We convinced the tribal chiefs, the community leaders and the religious leaders,” he said. “They gave us their word that poppy will not be cultivated in these parts. And we in turn gave them reconstruction projects. We are building roads, bridges and other infrastructure works and we will help them because they promised to give up cultivating poppy.”
The government serves as an intermediary between farmers and aid organizations in this process, handing out farm implements, saplings and seeds to farmers who have given up poppy cultivation.
But if the farmers have given up planting poppy, their conversion has not been a happy one. “If I grow a kilo of poppy, it’s far more profitable than a ton of corn,” says Nasurullah, a farmer in Khanan village. “All our incomes are in this flower,” he says, pointing to a lone poppy flower in the field.
The decline in farm revenues means landowners cannot afford to hire farm workers. This results in increasing unemployment rates. In these parts, the local economy is totally based on poppy cultivation. At one point, poppy flowers were even used as a currency of exchange. With the breakdown of the system, everyone suffers.
Tribal chiefs: The critical link
While the Afghan government relies heavily on tribal chiefs to implement their program, the tribal chiefs themselves make no secret of their dissatisfaction with the government. That, of course, is only when there are no government officials, police chief or aid workers around.
"We promised the government we would stick to the laws and give up cultivating poppy,” says Ghulam Hussain Yousufzai, chief of the Gulai Jabaghai tribe. “But we also need the government to provide us the means for an alternative livelihood that were promised and, as of now, we’re still waiting. This government enjoys our tribe’s support,” says Yousufzai, before adding ominously, “Without the tribes, there would be no government.”
The message is clear: Afghanistan’s tribal chiefs, so critical to the country’s poppy eradication hopes, are running out of patience.