(Afghan farmers get “burned out” as government there tows to US pressure. But for poppy farmers, it’s poppies or starvation. Wheat crops, or biofuel crops cannot compare in value.)
Molar (not his real name) is an Afghan farmer living in the central Hazzrajat Province of Afghanistan. His 60 hectare farm along the Helmand River has been in his family’s possession for generations. The crop that he and his family grow to subsist on has also been the same crop for as long as his family has been living there.
And that ‘crop’ is opium.
“This type of farming is all we have to live for,” the bearded father of 12 children said recently when he was informed by Afghan police that they were coming to cut down his crop of opium poppies as part of a continuing crackdown on the growing of this crop.
Molar and his two wives, as well as all of his children over age 8 help grow, and eventually harvest, the raw opium that when finally processed becomes pure heroin sold in places like New York and other major American cities.
As heroin continues to make its way into North America, the number of addicts seeking help for heroin abuse remains significant.
Growing opium is a tradition that has been going on in poor Asian countries like Afghanistan for more than two millennium. In fact, opium is considered as this country’s major export and amounts to more than 90% of the world’s raw opium. But farmers there are getting burned out — their crops destroyed as a method of cutting back on the illegal drug trade.
Life has never been easy for farmers like Molar and his family. Afghanistan is an arid, mountainous country with scorching hot summers and frigid winters.
What tillable soil is available is located on the plains and in mountain valleys, along rivers such as the Helmand, which is the country’s largest. For centuries, the numerous warlords who ruled there made considerable sums of money by selling opium to dealers who shipped the narcotic to markets that included the royalty of Europe and the opium dens of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
And in more recent years, processed opium, otherwise known as heroin, found a ready market all over America.
Opium is the only “cash crop” that farmers like Molar have grown, as it is relatively easy to cultivate and harvest, and does not require a big investment in modern farming equipment. The most important part of the plant, known by its Latin name papaver somniferine, are the seed bulbs that form when the opium flower withers; usually in late summer.
The opium-rich sap is harvested by making slits in the bulb and then collecting the sap when it oozes from the cut bulb. The sap is then mixed with ammonia, and cooked to form a thick paste, which is then dried. At this stage, the opium is ready to be used as a narcotic by smoking it in a pipe. Although this is still done in many parts of the world, the most financially lucrative use of opium is to refine it into a fluffy white powder, known as heroin.
As an indication of the difference in price between harvested opium and finished heroin, a farmer like Molar only receives the equivalent of around $300 for 100 kg of raw opium sap.
When processed into a kilogram of processed heroin, it has a ‘street value’ at destination of half a million dollars!
To give one an idea of how much this stuff is worth to Afghan farmers, it is estimated that they made as much as $3.4 billion in exports in 2008 alone. Of this the Taliban received a cut of at least $15 million.
Since the ouster of the fanatical Taliban regime from Afghanistan in 2001, intense efforts have been made to curtail the growing and export of opium. New projects, such as one called: “wheat instead of poppies,” have been introduced to try to wean farmers off growing opium poppies and into other crops, such as wheat and other grains.
So far, this hasn’t worked out as the land available for agriculture is much less suited for cereal grains, and not nearly as profitable.
Even with the financial assistance of America and other countries, including paying subsidies for growing alternative crops, this still doesn’t replace the profits made from growing poppies.
A 1970 edition of Encyclopedia Americana makes no mention of papaver somniferine poppy growing as part of the Afghan economy. Other crops, including wheat, corn, barley, cotton, and a variety of fruits, especially apricots and pomegranates are noted; as well as a variety of minerals, including extensive natural gas fields. Due to continuous military strife in that beleaguered land, growing opium poppies has sadly become the occupation of choice.
Though the Taliban are no longer ruling, their continued presence is still felt by all, and frustrated farmers are again turning to them for assistance in keeping government forces away from the poppy fields. Terrorist elements, including Al Qaeda, still have their influence with the poppy farmers, and incomes derived from the sale of opium help fund these movements in both Afghanistan and abroad.
“This relationship between farmer and terrorist is propping up the Taliban,” an Afghan narcotics enforcement official remarked recently while supervising the cutting and burning of several poppy fields. Government corruption is rampant, however, and often poorly paid government officials corporate with the Taliban and the drug traders, including the country’s judiciary system.
Due to the country’s virtually porous borders with both Iran and Pakistan, the collected and crudely processed opium sap is merely loaded on the backs of donkeys and camels and carried over the mountains into Pakistan, where it is shipped out to waiting markets in both Asia and the West.
American narcotic agents have been working actively with the Afghans to find and destroy the poppy crops before the opium can be shipped out. Many farmers have become very agitated with the source of their livelihood being threatened.
They have been involved in this form of agriculture for so long that they consider it as a natural part of their way of life; even though many are aware that even in their own country, many people, particularly young men, have become addicted to opium and to a crude, locally processed form of heroin .
A televised documentary by CNN concluded that despite intense efforts being made to stem the growing and export of opium form Afghanistan, the narcotic will continue to be grown and sold to both terrorists and drug dealers who are more than willing to accept the risks involved in marketing a commodity that is responsible for so much human misery and is worth so much on the open market.
And an article published by the Al Jazeera English website, noted a large amount of confiscated opium was burned recently by Afghan police authorities, most likely under orders from Gen. Mohammad Daoud, the Deputy Foreign Minister, who himself was probably under pressure from American and other Western governments.
As for Molar and his family, trying to eke out a subsistence living on their 60 hectare patch of land, it’s either the poppies or starvation.
What’s the solution in Afgan? Could biofuel crops compete with opium?
[image credit Getty via Al Jazeera]