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Afghanistan Farmers Planting Poppies Again

It?s planting season in eastern Afghanistan, and farmers are busy plowing their fields for next year?s crop of poppies that will eventually be turned into heroin and shipped to the streets of the U.S. and Europe.

A few weeks ago, many farmers were planning to plant wheat. But now that the Taliban have gone, along with their ban on drugs, most of them have changed their mind, since poppies earn them 15 times more money.

?The Taliban told us not to cultivate poppies, so I stopped,? says a gray-bearded father of nine. ?Absolutely we were forced to stop, and we were sorry about this. I don?t especially like growing poppies, but I was worried about getting food for my stomach.?

International drug controllers are afraid that the change of government in will bring a new flood of cheap heroin onto world markets. ?The chances of getting rid of opium completely were better before Sept. 11th,? says Thomas Pietschmann, of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCC).

International drug officials were pleasantly surprised by the success of the Taliban?s ban on opium production. They slashed production this year by 94 percent, according to surveys by the ODCC. ?It was seen as a historic breakthrough in international drug control,? says Kamal Kurspahic, the UN agency?s spokesman. ?Afghanistan traditionally produced 75 percent of the world?s opiates, and cutting that out meant we were on the way to real elimination.?

Prices reflected that change. A kilo of raw opium that cost $30 at the time of the 2000 harvest was $300 this year. As stockpiles dwindled, the price rose to $700 in early September. After Sept. 11, prices crashed to $90 as dealers unloaded their stocks to raise cash for the coming crisis. Higher prices are not necessarily a good thing, because unless addicts get treatment, it?s likely they will commit more crimes in order to get enough money to pay for their drugs.

Although drugs, as well as alcohol, are forbidden for devout Muslims, some Afghans say the Taliban earned money from the opium trade, through taxation. Islamic rulers took 1/40th of the value of whatever crop was planted. Some unscrupulous officials were rumored to have been directly involved in the stockpiling and sale of opium, earning an estimated $30 million a year.

The new authorities will probably not try to discourage farmers from returning to widespread poppy cultivation. ?You will never find people who will ban poppies like the Taliban did,? says Shamsul Haq, a drug-control officer who has worked with both mujahadeen and Taliban governments. ?It was unbelievable ... but I don?t think it will happen again under the new government.?

Mujahideen officials say this isn?t true. ?One hundred percent we will control opium planting, and we will not let it occur,? says Hazrat Ali, one of the mujahideen?s new ministers. ?Not all people in the drug trade are necessarily making money. They are wanting to get out of this business.?

But the mujahideen?s track record is not convincing. Warlords have always supported themselves with opium sales, and this year, while the Taliban almost eliminated poppy cultivation in the areas they controlled, the Northern Alliance authorities allowed poppy growing to increase threefold in the small area under their control. This accounted for more than 83 percent of all the land under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

But they may now want aid from the West more than the revenue from poppies, ?I am sure that the new Afghan government would expect substantial assistance from the international community, and we should not be shy about setting our conditions? for such aid, says Mohammed-Reza Amirkhizi, an Afghanistan specialist with the ODCC.

But the future of opium production does not depend only on the Afghan authorities. Farmers must be helped to find new ways of making money. The United States, along with Iran, was already working on this problem before September 11, by paying cash to farmers who agreed not to grow the crop.

?The international community must support programs to help farmers produce licit crops,? says Amirkhiz. ?Without supporting farmers, we won?t be successful. They do it because they are poor and opium is a source of cash, and if we don?t address the farmers? needs, I don?t think the authorities could impose a sustained policy? against drug production. Based on the lack of success U.S. drug enforcement has had converting drug selling youths to less lucrative jobs, we probably should not be optimistic that this will work.

"Ninety percent of the people depend on poppies, from laborers and farmers to sharecroppers, traders, traffickers, and big buyers,? says Mr. Haq, a local drug-control officer. ?There is nothing else in the country, no factories, no industry. This is the only income for people. This year?s season will be a big harvest.?

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