In tough times, Afghan farmers turn to opium for their safety
ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan – Abdul Hamid’s grenadiers were marked by bullets and shrapnel. The river was low and the land dry. There was no longer any profit to be made from the fruit that made his district in southern Afghanistan so famous for more than war.
So this month, Mr. Hamid’s field men began destroying his approximately 800 grenadiers in the Arghandab district of Kandahar. He watched the century-old orchard, cultivated for generations by his family, turn into a graveyard of twisted trunks, discarded fruit and dirt.
“There is no water, no good harvest,” said Mr Hamid, 80, the regular burping of a chainsaw obscuring his grim record. Lack of rain and dwindling water from wells made it nearly impossible to irrigate trees year-round, leaving part of this year’s crop scorched from dehydration. The Taliban’s military campaign over the past year has not helped.
The decision to destroy his entire orchard is one that Mr. Hamid and many other Afghan farmers in the district take to earn income after a series of devastating harvest seasons. A crippling drought, financial hardship and unpredictable border closures at the end of the war drove them to scramble for the security of the region’s most trusted economic engine: the opium poppy cultivation.
An orchard turned into a poppy field means little on the larger scale of Afghanistan’s opium production, the largest in the world, representing more than 80 percent of the global supply, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
But what is happening in Arghandab and elsewhere in Afghanistan, amid a disastrous economic collapse that has led to a nationwide cash shortage, may have ramifications for drug production and trafficking across the country. Afghanistan. Many fear that this season may be an early warning of a much higher crop in the future.
“Next year you will see poppy crops,” said Mohammed Omar, 54, another pomegranate farmer, as he strutted through his orchard with his hands clasped behind his back. His field hands pulled the last remaining fruit of the season from the thorny branches above. “There is nothing else.”
In Arghandab, a district northwest of Kandahar City and crossed by a meandering river of the same name, pomegranate is undoubtedly the pride of southern Afghanistan, and has long been a valuable export. Farmers whose families have worked in the orchards most of the time tag their catches so buyers and exporters know where they came from.
Berries are traditionally exported to Pakistan, India and sometimes the Persian Gulf, but recent border restrictions and airport closures since the Taliban took power have made trade extremely difficult. The border with Pakistan is sometimes closed and sometimes open, a volatile pattern that annoys endless Afghan farmers and pomegranate buyers as they try to plan their harvests, sales and exports.
In October last year, a Taliban offensive pierced the heart of the district amid harvests, with government and Taliban front lines deployed along the river. Insurgent homemade explosives littered the orchards, killing farmers who ventured inside to tend their crops. The fighting cut important roads, preventing the fruit from reaching the market.
Grenades died on their branches as field men waited for airstrikes, mortars and machine gun bursts to stop.
The fighting finally ended when Kandahar fell to the Taliban in August, leaving abandoned police outposts in the district, Taliban foxholes in orchards and burnt trees as evidence of the violence that ravaged the idyllic area. of interconnected fields and dusty roads.
Afghanistan under the Taliban
With the departure of the US military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. Across the country, concern for the future is widespread.
Safiullah, 21, a Taliban fighter from a nearby district who was tasked with patrolling Arghandab as a newly anointed police officer, explained that over the past year he had sneaked into many many pomegranate orchards, alone, to shoot government troops.
“Entire gardens have been destroyed by air strikes and mortars,” he noted, staring at a cut branch that had clearly been stabbed by a bullet. “I feel sad to see the beauty of this destroyed garden.”
Nearly 80 years old, Lewanai Agha has harvested pomegranates all his life. He continued while fighting in the Soviet War in the 1980s as an insurgent, surviving the Civil War and the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and the failure of the American invasion that began in 2001 But this past year has been the one that has broken him, he said.
In 2019, Mr. Agha earned approximately $ 9,300. In 2020: around $ 620, but then he was still able to keep a happy demeanor despite the violent Taliban offensive that ravaged his orchard. This year, Mr. Agha, pacing only two mounds of grenades, spoke defeated, his eyes fixed on the ground. It was his entire harvest, he said, and next year there will likely be poppy stalks in part of that orchard.
“We have been left in misery by all,” said Mr. Agha. Six members of his family were killed in the fighting in the months following the last harvest. “Eat a pomegranate and leave it all behind, it’s not worth talking about.”
For many years, opium has yielded lower profits than pomegranates per hectare, but what it offers is financial security. Opium can be stored longer and requires much less irrigation than pomegranates. And the sale and distribution of the illicit substance often relies on a network of smugglers inside the country, so closed borders are no longer a problem.
âFarmers are rational actors,â said David Mansfield, an expert on illicit economies. “They can see the increased risks of continuing to grow pomegranate.”
It was as if Mr. Agha and Arghandab himself had finally been defeated after enduring decades of abuse. The wells must now be deepened. Orchards and fields had to be cleared of improvised explosive devices. Some farmers sent herds of sheep to set off the bombs or hired locals. Burnt trees were cut and replanted and shell craters filled with earth.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Hamidullah, 35, a pomegranate buyer with only one name, has purchased fruit from the orchards of Arghandab and shipped them to markets in the city and beyond for the past decade. He quietly observed that âif the situation remains the same, we fear that there will be no more trees in the next few yearsâ.
At another time, the decision to replace parts of his pomegranate orchard may have been unthinkable. But in recent years, Mr. Omar had lost thousands of dollars in overhead costs, such as fuel for his irrigation pumps and farm workers’ wages, with no return on those investments.
Enter the Taliban and the Poppy. Insurgents who became leaders had a complicated relationship with culture. During their first regime, the Taliban made several half-hearted attempts to restrict opium before completely banning its cultivation on religious grounds in the late 1990s and 2000s. But after being overthrown by the United States , the Taliban dove into the industry, using the profits to fund their insurgency against the world’s most powerful military.
The Taliban in Arghandab district have given farmers a pass to cultivate the crop given the hardships of recent seasons, residents said. A few poppy growing seasons could yield a lower yield than expected, said Hamid, the farmer who destroyed his orchard. But if the country’s Taliban rulers crack down again, it will be a godsend as supplies dwindle. At least that’s what he and other poppy growers rely on.
Although the Taliban indicated their desire to ban drug production after the group took power in August, in an interview on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said there was no plan. to stop or eradicate poppy cultivation.
âOur people are going through an economic crisis, and preventing people from their only means of income is not a good idea,â Mujahid said, adding that the Taliban was encouraging farmers to âfind alternativesâ.
Poppy growth in Afghanistan has steadily increased in recent years despite billions of dollars spent by the United States and others on anti-narcotics efforts. The total area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 224,000 hectares – nearly 900 square miles – in 2020, a 37 percent increase from 2019, according to a United Nations report.
âIt’s shameful, we know, but we are forced to. What else can we do? “Mr. Omar spoke about the poppy cultivation, standing a few meters from where Mr. Agha kept throwing sour pomegranates.” Everyone is chopping trees.
Yaqoob Akbary and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting by Arghandab and Sami Sahak from Los Angeles.