As Aid Runs Out, Afghan Farmers Return to Poppy Foreign aid is meant to ease Afghanistan's economic dependency on poppy harvests. As President Hamid Karzai pushes provincial governors to crack down on the drug trade, Afghan farmers complain that no one is helping them. Many who gave up their poppy crops last year say they are planting them again.
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As Aid Runs Out, Afghan Farmers Return to Poppy

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As Aid Runs Out, Afghan Farmers Return to Poppy

As Aid Runs Out, Afghan Farmers Return to Poppy

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There's a new push to eradicate Afghanistan's opium crop. Foreign aid is targeted toward easing the country's economic dependency on poppy harvests, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai is pressuring provincial governors to crack down on the drug trade. But Afghan farmers who till the land where the opium cycle begins complain that no one is helping them. Many farmers who last year gave up their poppy crops say they are planting them again.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this story.

JAMAAL: (Speaking foreign language)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The dry, wind-swept farmland belonging to Jamaal and his northern Afghan clan stretches clear to the horizon. Jamaal says last spring, all one could see from this spot was opium poppies, and by next year, the bearded farmer in a white prayer cap promises that opium poppies are all anyone will see again.

JAMAAL: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: That's because Jamaal and other farmers in the northern province of Balkh say they can't afford to plant anything else, even if opium is un-Islamic. The farmers claim the government promised them seed, wells and other help in exchange for switching last fall to far less lucrative, but legitimate crops like wheat and vegetables. Jamaal says they are still waiting for the help.

JAMAAL: (Through translator) We've got an expression in our language that says that the government is father and mother to us. So we trusted the government and we stopped. We trusted them that they would abide by their promises, but we are seeing right now that nothing has happened.

NELSON: Western officials here say they are not surprised by the farmers' frustration, adding that rebuilding Afghanistan takes time. They predict getting rid of Afghanistan's opium problem will take even longer. U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann.

Mr. RONALD NEUMANN (United States Ambassador to Afghanistan): You're not going to have alternatives until you rebuild the rural economy, and until you can move a crop to market, it doesn't matter what other crop you put in. So there are some pieces that have much longer phases.

NELSON: But Afghan government officials are less forgiving of the farmers. Jamaal and his friends offered names of government workers who they say came and offered incentives, but officials in Kabul and the provincial capital insist no one was ever promised individual help. Instead, the officials say money was earmarked to improve electricity, water and roads for everyone to boost the Afghan economy as a whole.

Zalmay Afzali, spokesman for the Counter-narcotics Ministry, says giving farmers aid to stop planting poppies would be immoral.

Mr. ZALMAY AFZALI (Counter-narcotics Ministry, Afghanistan): Poppy is illegal in our constitution, but when we are giving alternative to them, it means that we are saying don't drop, we will give you money. It means that it is an under the table deal that we are making with the farmers, deceiving our own constitution.

NELSON: Afzali adds that authorities plan to deal severely with any farmers who go back to planting poppies, the time for which is October, but he admits it will be difficult. He adds that there aren't even enough trained and equipped police officers to fight drug traffickers.

Mr. AFZALI: Let me give you a short example. Our border police is wearing sandals and having three bullets of AK-47 in his gun, and he's protecting us from the international mafia. Do you think it's possible? Is it okay to compare to compare our police with your FBI? No, it's not.

NELSON: Some Western officials also express concern that Balkh, considered an Afghan success story in opium poppy crop reduction and eradication last year, could prove a lightning rod for other quiet provinces in the north.

But Jamaal insists he and other farmers are not trying to hurt their country by rejoining the three billion dollar a year opium trade. He also denies government claims that the farmers are being pressured by drug dealers to return to poppy planting. Jamaal says farmers are simply trying to survive.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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