Farmers face poppy dilemma

Taliban insurgents are forcing farmers in Farah Province, southern Afghanistan, to grow opium poppies and are imposing a hefty tax on yields, some farmers and provincial officials told IRIN.

“The Taliban told me to grow poppies or I would be punished,” said Abdul Sattar, a farmer in the Poshtroad District, southwestern Farah Province.

“They say by growing opium [poppies] we are actually demonstrating our support for `jihad’ against the Americans,” said Abdul Majid, another farmer.

Mullah Shah Mohammad and Mullah Salaam, two senior insurgent commanders in Farah, confirmed to IRIN that the insurgents were encouraging poppy cultivation and were demanding up to 20 percent of the harvest.

“It is an obligation upon every Muslim in this country to pay and support the `jihad’ and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” Shah Mohammad told IRIN on the phone from an unidentified location, calling the exercise a kind of Islamic tax, `usher’.

Mullah Salaam dismissed allegations about punishments: “We don’t punish people who do not grow opium.”

Under strong international pressure, the Afghan government has declared poppy cultivation a crime and is ostensibly committed to eradicating all poppy fields in the country.

“The Taliban are forcing people to grow poppy in order to create animosity and rifts between the government and the people,” said Joma Khan Bashiri, head of Farah’s counter-narcotics department.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium cultivation is concentrated in the seven most unstable provinces of southern and southwest Afghanistan where Taliban insurgents are considered influential.

Farmers in southern Helmand Province also said they were told by the insurgents to grow poppies.

“The Taliban gave assurances they would protect our poppy fields from the government,” said Ahmad Jan, a farmer in Helmand.

Drugs, crime, conflict

Over the past seven years, and despite strong efforts to curb opium production, Afghanistan has annually produced over 90 percent of the world’s heroin and opium, according to annual reports by UNODC.

Drug abuse is widespread with serious humanitarian consequences.

It is also believed that opium production has strong links to the insurgency, organized crime, corruption and other illegal activities, and has often led to violent incidents.

On 3 May, insurgents took up positions in Granai village, Bala Boluk District, in Farah Province and demanded a share of the villagers’ poppy income. The incident turned into a fire-fight between the insurgents and patrolling Afghan and US forces as a result of which dozens of civilians were killed and injured, US-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement on 15 May.

Others have highlighted the organized crime element: “Insurgent commanders benefit from taxation in kind at the farm-gate, from direct involvement in trafficking and sales and from protection money paid by traffickers to smooth exports,” says Jacob Townsend in the JamesTown Foundation’s publication in January.

Who to obey?

As the government and insurgents pursue diametrically opposed policies on poppy cultivation, farmers - especially in volatile southern areas - are increasingly facing a dilemma.

“If we grow poppy the government will destroy it, but if we don’t grow poppy the Taliban think we are defying them,” said a farmer in Farah.

Whilst still stressing the importance of the manual eradication of poppies, government officials say the bigger priority is apprehending the big-time drug smugglers.

The Interior Ministry has said hundreds of drug smugglers have been arrested and imprisoned, and dozens of heroin-producing laboratories destroyed over the past year - actions praised by the UN - but the extent to which these moves have significantly affected the heroin trade, is still unclear.

Meanwhile, UNODC’s executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, has told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that efforts are being made to stop any drugs leaving the country in a bid to allow the domestic market to become saturated with drugs, thus driving down drug prices inside Afghanistan and discouraging farmers from poppy cultivation.

“Manual eradication is incompetent and inefficient,” Costa was quoted as saying.