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Afghan farmer: I tried, but have to grow poppies to survive

Bay Ismoyo / AFP - Getty Images

U.S. Marines walk through opium poppy fields during a meet and greet joint patrol with Afghanistan National Police in Habibullah village in Khanashin District, Helman province, on April 24, 2011. According to a U.N. study released this week, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has risen 7 percent in 2011 despite eradication efforts.

By Sohel Uddin, NBC News Producer

KABUL – Afghan farmer Ismael Iyas Khail had gotten out of the poppy planting business six years ago, but desperation has brought him back in. The current market value of opium poppies is approximately $1,500 per kilogram, four times the amount he used to sell it for.

As a poor 27-year-old farmer with no other economic opportunities, he needs the money to survive.

“I just planted poppy seeds last month and hopefully they will be ready for picking in a few months,” said Khail over the phone Thursday from Afghanistan’s Nangahar province.

Six years ago, Khail was approached by a non-governmental organization and asked if he wanted to take part in a program to move farmers away from growing the poppies that fuel the heroin drug trade and cultivate alternate high-value crops such as pomegranates, saffron or wheat.

Khail chose saffron and was promised cheap seeds, a tractor, electricity and additional funding.


But out of all those incentives, he says he only received the cheap seeds, sparingly distributed by the police who were supposed to help implement the program. Khail claims the police sold most of the seeds to third parties for profit.

He says that growing saffron has left him struggling to survive. 
 
“We have borrowed so much money from people over the years and now they want it all back,” he said.
 
Apart from the stress created by the moneylenders, there is the pressure of feeding five children, as well as helping his extended family, which consists of his four brothers and their families.  
 
Not alone
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) underscored the predicament of farmers like Khail in a report published this week titled “2011 Afghan Opium Survey.”

UNODC said Afghanistan saw a 7 percent rise in poppy cultivation from last year, despite a number of programs to eradicate such farming. The study attributed the increase to a sharp rise in opium prices, combined with persistent poverty.

The boost in the value of opium means that the 7 percent increase in poppy cultivation will likely double the value of opium production in Afghanistan to $1.4 billion – making up 9 percent of the country’s GDP, the UNODC estimated.
 
Afghans living in the cities have been the main beneficiaries of the progress brought by 10 years of war and international involvement in Afghanistan.

Half the people in a rural Afghan village have turned to opium because they lack medicine and access to health care. Many village children are born addicted to opium.

But with the exception of a few schools and clinics, most villages and towns in the provinces have not seen much change since the Taliban or even earlier. According to Global Humanitarian Assistance, which tracks humanitarian financing, $286 billion has been invested in Afghanistan since 2001, but the majority of Afghans are still living on less than $1 a day. 
 
The various poppy eradication initiatives succeeded in converting 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces into poppy-free zones, but the results of UNODC’s survey found that three of these provinces have since lost this status, reducing the number to 17.  Farmers like Khail are returning to poppy planting because they find alternative crops are not living up to their economic promise amid persistent corruption and the lure of higher prices for opium.

“We have tried to be good and understand that opium is bad, but I don’t have a choice now. We have to survive,” he said.

He is aware that Afghanistan is hugely responsible for the world’s supply of opium that ends up being sold on the street as heroin, but he is probably unaware that it is as high as 90 percent.