U.S. Eyes Moving Afghan Farmers Away From Poppy

A key piece of the puzzle in Afghanistan is how to transform an agricultural economy dominated by opium production into one in which farmers grow crops that don't fund the Taliban. Otto Gonzalez, senior agricultural adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, discusses U.S. efforts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

One key piece of the puzzle in Afghanistan is how to transform an agricultural economy that's dominated by opium production: how to make it worthwhile for Afghan farmers to grow, say, pomegranates, wheat or almonds instead of opium poppies, which fund the Taliban. We've asked Otto Gonzalez to come in and talk about that. He is the senior agricultural adviser to the president's point man on Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke. Mr. Gonzalez has been in and out of Afghanistan since 2003 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and he is just back from his most recent trip. Welcome to the program.

Mr. OTTO GONZALEZ (Senior Agricultural Adviser): Hi. Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: How do you describe how vital agriculture is to success in Afghanistan?

Mr. GONZALEZ: Agriculture really is essential for success in Afghanistan. When we look at the country, 80 percent of the people are involved in agriculture in one way or another. So, if we're going to be successful in Afghanistan we really have to succeed in helping the Afghans redevelop their agricultural sector.

BLOCK: And also as we said, to turn away from cultivation of opium poppies, which is part of the goal. What is your argument to an Afghan farmer if you are trying to convince him to abandon opium poppies, which are really lucrative?

Mr. GONZALEZ: Sure. Well, actually I think the Afghan farmers have come up with the best arguments themselves in that, given the opportunity, given the right set of incentives, they have switched from opium to a list of crops. You mentioned pomegranates in your introduction - pomegranates and other higher value horticultural crops - grapes, almonds. And what we're looking to do under our program is really to give them the enabling conditions so that they can make that switch and be confident in the switch.

BLOCK: I interviewed on the program a little while ago, the head of the Afghan Red Crescent and she talked about a successful program to move farmers from growing poppies to saffron. And she said it worked but then there was a problem. They didn't have equipment to pack it. They didn't have a way to sell it for exports. How do you address those concerns, not to mention security?

Mr. GONZALEZ: Sure. Well, the department I am with, U.S. Department of Agriculture, is working very closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development. We're working with the U.S. military on provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan and also working with the U.S. Army National Guard. And together, what we are doing is identifying some of these key points in the value chain and actually working with Afghans to produce these facilities, to establish facilities. For example, one of the projects in Afghanistan worked to establish a juice factory. And they sold 25,000 tons of fruit juice to India last year. Another activity: where we have been collaborating with Turkey in Wardak Province to ship apples to India. The first time Afghanistan has had a shipment like this of apples, three metric tons of apples to India. Afghanistan enjoys a superb reputation in the region for its produce. But the obstacle is getting the produce to markets, particularly key markets such as India.

BLOCK: And if you think about fertile areas in the south of the country in Kandahar province, Helmand province where the violence is at its peak, how do you solve that? I mean, if the security situation is so dicey, how can you help people get anything to market?

Mr. GONZALEZ: Well, certainly security is part of a picture, but we have also found that as development activities come in, they often help to enhance security. Because it helps to give farmers a confidence that they can look toward a future that maybe doesn't have to be dominated by the extremist.

BLOCK: It sounds a bit like a chicken and an egg problem, to mix agricultural metaphor a little bit. Does the agriculture bring security or do you need the security to allow agriculture to flourish?

Mr. GONZALEZ: It really is a dynamic situation. You certainly do need security. But as you bring in some of these activities, you then increase the security because of the interest and the goodwill, which can be developed amongst the people in the area. And when we think about our agricultural program in Afghanistan, we really have two main goals. One goal is to increase agricultural sector jobs and incomes. And the other goal is to increase Afghans confidence in their government, in particular the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.

So, when we have these activities and we are linked in with the government the local people down the district level are seeing these impacts and know that their government's involved with it. That helps enhance security. They've got confidence not only in their government but confidence in the future that doesn't have to include the Taliban.

BLOCK: Mr. Gonzalez, thanks a lot.

Mr. GONZALEZ: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Otto Gonzalez is senior agricultural adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

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