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From owner-imap@chumbly.math.missouri.edu Thu Nov 22 08:00:10 2001
Date: Wed, 21 Nov 2001 00:09:42 -0600 (CST)
Organization: South Movement
From: Dave Muller <davemull@alphalink.com.au>
Subject: [southnews] Opium farmers rejoice at defeat of the Taliban
Article: 130664
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Opium farmers rejoice at defeat of the Taliban

By Richard Lloyd Parry, Independent,
21 November 2001

Surkhrud, Afghanistan - Of the many Afghans whose lives were blighted by the Taliban, there are few victims more pathetic than the likes of Mohammed Khatib. He survives just about by farming, of a kind that has scarcely changed in centuries. Oxen pull his plough, a wooden plank studded with nails. He has to give more than two-thirds of his harvest to the owner of the land he farms and if there are floods or drought he may not be able to support his family.

It was always a meagre existence, but then the Taliban reduced him to complete destitution. They would not let us plant and in this land it is the only way to make money, said Mr Khatib. We have nothing here. Last night I did not even have oil for my family to cook.

But now there is hope, for the Taliban have gone and Mr Khatib and the farmers of Surkhrud are free to grow the crop that provides them with the closest thing to a reasonable existence the opium poppy.

Yesterday morning, like hundreds of farmers all over the eastern province of Nangarhar, he stood in his fields preparing the ground for the tiny yellow seeds that will grow into poppies. Next spring, the petals will fall away, exposing a seed head, and when the time is right Mr Khatib's helpers will make narrow vertical razor cuts in them. Out of these will leak a sap that dries to a sticky residue, opium, the raw material of heroin.

Mr Khatib said: We were so shocked when the Taliban announced their ban on growing poppies, but now we hope for a good harvest ... God willing, our troubles will be solved.

In the West, the drugs problem is easily seen as a matter of black and white, a struggle between evil criminal syndicates intent on making money out of the misery of addicts and the righteous forces of the war on drugs. But in Afghanistan, the problem is revealed for what it is an economic and political conundrum, rich in ironies and grey areas. Far from being evil exploiters, the poppy farmers are victims of cruel poverty. And, most remarkable of all, the movement that has done most to deal with the drugs problem is not a Western government or an anti-drugs campaign, but the reviled Taliban regime.

Afghanistan used to be the world's biggest source of opium: 75 per cent of the world's heroin originated in the country and the scale of poppy cultivation was staggering. Najib Ullah, head of the United Nations Drugs Control Programme (UNDCP) in the eastern city of Jalalabad, said: There were places in Helmand province where you saw nothing but poppies.

Last year, the country produced 3,276 tonnes of raw opium, most of it from Helmand and the Nangarhar area around Jalalabad. This year, according to a recently published survey by the UNDCP, production plunged to 185 tonnes.

In the course of a single year, production of this most lucrative of crops had fallen by 94 per cent. There was one reason: in July last year, the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who had tolerated the opium trade for the first five years of his regime, announced a ban on poppy cultivation.

Even now, the reasons are mysterious. One theory is that Mullah Omar believed, mistakenly, that if he crushed the opium trade the international community would reward him with diplomatic recognition of his government and a seat at the United Nations. The more cynical theory unproven, but widely retailed is that Taliban leaders had amassed vast stocks of opium and wished to restrict the supply to drive up the price. Whatever the reason, the ban was enforced with a ruthlessness that only a government such as the Taliban could muster. Poppy fields were set alight; transgressors were jailed. Mr Khatib said: We were absolutely prevented from planting and growing.

To understand the impact of the ban, consider the economics of farming in Afghanistan. For a crop of wheat, which Mr Khatib was forced to sow last year, a farmer can make about 7p a kilogram. Even before the ban drove up prices, raw opium sold for between #22 and #45 a kilogram.

The seeds that Mr Khatib and his brother need to sow their half-acre field cost #1; when they sell their harvest, they expect to make #6,700. We grow the opium only because we have no money, said Mr Khatib's brother, Ahmad Zia. If we had some other source of income if there was some factory established, or road construction then we wouldn't grow opium at all.

But the chances of a burst of industrial investment in today's Afghanistan are slim, and everyone knows it. The opium farmers show no embarrassment about their crop, and this is the next irony of the Afghan drug trade: the people who cultivate the drug have little understanding of its effects.

Afghanistan has many smokers of hashish, which also flourishes here, but opium and heroin use is almost unknown. Asked if he has ever tried the opium he has grown, Mr Khatib replied: No way. It's bad for your health and it's also against our religion. Who uses his opium? People in Pakistan, he answered. What about Europe and America? I am a poor man and I have never been to those countries, so I don't know.

Already there are signs that the opium price is about to come down, and this is the final irony: the defeat of the Taliban, a victory for the war on terrorism, may bring with it a wretched defeat in the war against drugs.