Along a road leading to the Bajaur tribal area on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, two men cast stealthy glances around them as they guide donkeys carrying bags covered with blankets.
As they approach a check-post manned by Pakistani soldiers, the men scramble up a hillside with their consignments, hoping to make their way around the barrier undetected. The men are not carrying drugs or weapons, per se, but outlawed plant fertilizers which they hope to sell to farmers in Bajaur.
The ban on ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate and calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizers was imposed in Malakand Division - comprising the Dir, Swat, Chitral and Malakand districts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) - in November 2009 by the NWFP government, following reports that those chemicals were used by militants to make explosives.
“Fertilizers which contain nitrates have been used by militants to make homemade bombs. This is why the restriction has been placed,” Malakand Commissioner Abdul Karim Khattak said.
Neighbouring Afghanistan imposed a similar ban last week and is already facing a barrage of criticism from farmers.
The restrictions were also imposed by authorities in Bajaur, which adjoins Malakand.
In Khar, the principal town of Bajaur, 40-year-old farmer Mobeen Khan told IRIN that the ban was affecting crop yields and food security.
“Without these, we cannot farm our lands,” Khan said. “Already crops have been badly affected and many farmers are desperate to save what they can. We need the crops not only to sell but to feed our own families, or they will starve. There is no choice now but to buy fertilizers at inflated rates from smugglers who bring them in from neighbouring districts, especially Lower Dir.”
While the ban is supposed to be only for fertilizers that contain nitrates, Khan alleged that all kinds of fertilizers had been banned in Bajaur and shops previously selling them had been closed down. “In some cases this is just a means used to harass people or extort bribes,” Khan said.
Photo: Abdul Majeed Goraya/IRIN
|Bajaur is one of the areas of Pakistan worst hit by militant activity|
NWFP Minister of Agriculture Arbab Ayub Jan told the media soon after the ban was imposed that the government would provide fertilizer to farmers through Model Farm Services Centres (MFSC), where the identity of buyers would be checked to “ensure they are farmers”.
Abdul Uthmankhel, a 65-year-old local farmer, said the government’s decision to sell through MFSCs was “pointless in Bajaur” as there were only “two such centres in the whole agency with very few members”.
“The fertilizer ban simply means we will suffer even more. Crops of wheat and maize are being affected. When we were young men we knew how to manage without fertilizer, but the farmers of today are completely dependent on them,” Uthmankhel said.
Muhammad Jamal, head of the Soil and Environmental Sciences Department at NWFP Agricultural University in Peshawar, said “local farmers have been using such fertilizers for decades. Their lack of availability will greatly affect crop production.”
“Even my potato crops are less than usual. On the hillsides here we only have small areas of land to farm and if the crops fails it really affects us badly,” said Wali Khan, 50, a local subsistence farmer. He said buying smuggled fertilizer “is simply not an option because the rates are too high”.
Bajaur, where a military operation has been ongoing since late 2008, is one of the areas of Pakistan worst hit by militant activity. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at the end of 2009, some 250,000 people were displaced from Bajaur.
The agency has also seen a succession of militant attacks, the latest when a suicide bomber killed 16 people at a market in Khar on 30 January.