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A Cloud of Ruin Hangs Over Poppy Crop

Afghanistan: Growers vow to fight ban. 'Yes, we know it's poison, but we have to feed our families.'

April 11, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO and RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ARABAN, Afghanistan — A bountiful spring harvest has come to Nangarhar province. A gorgeous carpet of pink and violet flowers has sprung from the red earth, stretching for miles past fields of young green wheat and white-topped onions.

These are opium poppies, the first crop since the Taliban outlawed opium growing in July 2000, reducing the crop by a stunning 96%. This is also the first poppy crop since the interim Afghan government was installed in December, and it has precipitated a crisis in Nangarhar.

In a matter of days, the poppies will be ready for extraction of the gummy gray opium paste that is processed into heroin in Pakistan and sent via Iran and Turkey to addicts in Europe.

But the Kabul government, under pressure from the United States and Britain, has threatened to destroy the entire harvest unless farmers accept token cash payments to plow under their poppies. Nangarhar's opium farmers, a contentious lot, have responded with a volatile mixture of fear and defiance.

"Destroy my crop? Hah! The government wouldn't dare," said Abdul Ali, a stout farmer of 25 who says he has invested 120,000 rupees, or about $2,000, in his six acres of poppies here in the lush Sukh Rod (Red River) valley southwest of Jalalabad. "If they try to touch one poppy, there'll be big trouble, I promise you."

Farmers have barricaded roads, stoned passing cars, blocked returning refugees and shot dead a provincial functionary who dared set foot on a poppy field. Some Afghans speculate that opium had something to do with a bomb that killed five people Monday in a failed attempt in Jalalabad to assassinate the country's defense minister--the man who would send in soldiers to destroy poppies.

Nangarhar is the country's second-largest opium-producing province after Helmand in the south (where eight protesting farmers were killed by government forces Sunday and authorities began destroying poppy crops Wednesday). Nangarhar is also the source of the finest-quality opium paste. The opium trade is the engine of the local economy, generating millions of dollars for wealthy drug traffickers and smaller sums for thousands of farmers and their illiterate laborers.

Government's Offer Is Deemed an Insult

Farmers say they are insulted by the government's offer of $250 per jerib, about half an acre. They say they earn at least $2,000 from the opium paste produced on one jerib--many times the income from wheat or corn. On Wednesday, the government increased the offer to $350 per jerib.

For Nangarhar's political bosses and military commanders, opium is a delicate subject. According to the farmers, top officials profit handsomely from the drug trade either by leasing their considerable land holdings to opium farmers, growing poppies themselves, or charging fees to permit opium trafficking through their territories.

There is nothing furtive or shameful about growing opium poppies here. They grow openly on corner lots in Jalalabad, the provincial capital. People plant poppies in their gardens.

The other day, Haji Abdul Qadir, the provincial governor, sat slumped in a padded chair inside the governor's palace, sweat glistening on his tanned bald head. He had just emerged from a meeting with hostile farmers--tall, bearded, sunburned men in dirt-streaked robes who had upbraided him.

"The farmers say we are taking bread from their mouths," Qadir said, a plaintive edge in his voice. "But what can I do? I am obligated to obey the government. If it was up to me, I'd say begin the harvest tomorrow."

The region's security chief, the urbane and polished Haji Mohammed Zaman, sat wearily in his orange grove, lamenting his fate. He had enough problems maintaining day-to-day security on his troubled patch of earth without the added burden of an opium war.

Zaman too had been chastised by the farmers. And now, he said, American drug agents had joined the U.S. Special Forces soldiers living in his compound. He sensed trouble.

"The farmers are right," Zaman said. "Two hundred fifty dollars a jerib--it's nothing. But the orders have come, and we must obey orders."

It so happens that the farmers who produce the country's finest opium hail from Zaman's home district of Khogiani near Tora Bora. And it so happens that some of the biggest and most impressive poppy fields in the region surround the country estate of his good friend, Qadir.

"That," the governor said nonchalantly, "belongs to another person."

Qadir and Zaman seem intent on filibustering the issue to death, scheduling an endless series of meetings with farmers until after the harvest is actually in.

Once the paste is extracted, the poppies are just weeds. Then, the farmers say, the government is welcome to them.

New Ban on Crop Was Poorly Timed

Timing is everything with opium. The Taliban announced its 2000 ban in July, three months before the November planting season. But the interim government announced its ban in January, after the crop had been planted.

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