Gardeners’ question time for poppy farmers

Ghor province is better known as an opium trading route than as a place where it’s grown. But since the Taliban banned cultivating it, migrant labourers who used to work in Helmand brought their new green-fingered skills back home with them and production has increased.

According to a new UN report, the area of land used for poppy cultivation in Ghor has increased this year, up from 1,503 hectares in 2007, though that’s still well below previous bumper years, and hardly anything compared with other provinces.

In line with Ghor’s marginal status, poppies haven’t been that successful in the area. The province is too dry for one.

However, the good farmers of Ghor have also been accused of just not being very good at growing the stuff: not knowing the ‘optimal agricultural practices for the crop’, being lazy with the weeding, harvesting on an ad hoc, unproductive basis, and generally approaching the enterprise as a family livelihood rather than as a proper business.

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[Pic: Young boy harvesting opium poppies in Ghor, August 2007]

This, coming from one of the foremost experts on the subject, David Mansfield, is a rather damning indictment.

Mansfield concluded that ‘while a marginal crop, opium poppy can offer a lifeline to those with limited assets and during crisis and shocks. Indeed, if households had obtained a reasonable opium crop this year [2006], fewer households in Ghor would be facing a winter of food shortages.’

Reading his report one can’t help but wonder if he offered the farmers any practical advice while he was carrying out his research.

Given the widespread and continuing crop failures and food shortages in the province it might have been no bad thing if he did, as I doubt USAID will be funding a Poppy Gardeners’ Question Time radio show any time soon.

If an otherwise impoverished farmer can scratch a living from growing poppies, fair play to him I say. But there are other problems associated with the trade.

Last autumn in Chagcharan I watched a cloud of smoke rise from three and a half tonnes of opium being burnt on the edge of town. It had been intercepted by the police. Only there were rumours the amount the police had actually found was nearly double that being burnt.

A week or so later there was a rocket attack on town. Apparently the folk who had had their opium seized weren’t best pleased. No one was hurt, but the message was pretty obvious.

No one’s going to get rich growing opium in Ghor, but for the people who traffic it there’s a lot at stake. And the people who control the trafficking have the power to make a lot of mischief.

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