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Hard times for Afghan opium farmers

world Updated: Sep 02, 2009 13:14 IST

Reuters
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Growing opium is hardly worth the risk any more for Dost Mohammad, a farmer in Helmand, a province of Afghanistan which by itself produces almost enough opium to satisfy all the heroin addicts on earth.

"Opium farmers benefit nothing from the crops and spend their day and night in misery," he told Reuters.

"We spend six months in the field working hard, then the government can destroy it in a single day."

According to the United Nations, prices for opium have plummeted in Afghanistan, causing farmers to switch to other crops, a rare bit of good news for Western efforts in a country where an 8-year-old war is at its most violent.

The paste, produced from the bulbous pods of the poppy flower, is refined to produce heroin and exported around the world.

Two years ago, a farmer growing opium could earn 10 times as much as a farmer growing wheat on the same piece of land. Today, it is only worth three times as much. For many, that means producing the drugs is no longer worth the risk or effort.

According to the U.N.'s annual report into Afghanistan's drug harvest, 800,000 Afghans abandoned the trade this year. Opium, which accounted for 27 per cent of Afghanistan's economy in 2002, now accounts for just 4 per cent.

Across Afghanistan, 22 per cent less land is cultivated with opium than last year. In Helmand, the reduction is steeper. Areas that last year were almost completely planted with the tall, colorful flowers were this year patched with green wheat fields.

Adam Khan, a smuggler who trades opium in several districts in Helmand, said the low price and the government's eradication operations in districts and villages previously controlled by the Taliban have badly affected the trade.

"I used to sell five kilos (11 pounds) for 40,000 Pakistani rupees ($480). Now it is not more than 15,000 to 16,000," he said.

Still, farmers like Dost Mohammad believe the traders are making their money, while the farmers suffer in poverty.

"The opium smugglers are immune between the government and Taliban," Dost Mohammad, who farms from the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah, told Reuters.

"In the government's eyes, they are businessmen. With the Taliban, they are their source of lots of money," he said.

Farmers who have their own small plots to work on have been branching out into planting other crops, but big landlords connected to dealers are still hiring laborers to plant opium, farmers say.
The United Nations believes traders are hoarding stockpiles, perhaps as much as 10,000 tonnes, or double the annual illicit demand for the drug.

Mohammad Usman, a 30-year-old opium trader who has been in the business for 12 years, said he had no intention of leaving it. He drives a Toyota Landcruiser around Helmand with six armed guards and carries a satellite cell phone.

"This is my business, if I profit or if lose money, I still can't think of alternatives," he said. "I understand that the prices have come down but no other crop can give me more than this."