In tough times, Afghan farmers turn to opium for safety

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan – Abdul Hamid’s pomegranate trees were scarred by bullets and shrapnel. The river was low and landed dry. There was no profit anymore from the fruit that made his district in southern Afghanistan so famous for anything but war.

So this month, Mr Hamid’s field hands began destroying his approximately 800 pomegranate trees in Kandahar’s Arghandab district. He watched as the century-old orchard, which his family had cultivated for generations, was transformed into a cemetery with twisted trunks, discarded fruit, and churned soil.

“There is no water, no good crops,” said Mr Hamid, 80, and the constant barking from a chainsaw drowned out his grim assessment. The lack of rain and declining well water had made it almost impossible to water the trees all year round, leaving parts of this year’s harvest burned by dehydration. The Taliban’s military campaign in the last year did not help.

Hamid and many other Afghan farmers in the district make the decision to destroy his entire orchard in order to earn an income after a series of devastating harvest seasons. A crippling drought, economic hardships and unpredictable border closures at the end of the war have led them to fight for the safety of the region’s most reliable economic engine: growing opium poppy.

One orchard that has become a poppy field means very little in the wider scale of Afghanistan’s opium production, the largest in the world, accounting for more than 80 percent of the world’s supply, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

But what is happening in Arghandab and elsewhere in Afghanistan, in the midst of a terrible economic collapse that has led to a nationwide money shortage, could have consequences for the drug’s production and trade in Afghanistan. Many fear that this season is an early warning of much higher cultivation 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 folded 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 intersected by a meandering river of the same name, the pomegranate is undoubtedly the pride of southern Afghanistan and has long been a valuable export commodity. Farmers whose families have worked in the orchard for most of the remembered time mark their move so buyers and exporters know where it came from.

The red fruit is traditionally exported to Pakistan, India and sometimes the Gulf, but the recent border restrictions and airport closures following the Taliban’s takeover have made trade extremely difficult. The border with Pakistan is sometimes closed and sometimes open, a skewed pattern that puts Afghan pomegranate farmers and buyers endlessly against as they try to time their harvest, sales and exports.

Last October, a Taliban offensive penetrated the heart of the district in the middle of the harvest, with government and Taliban front lines lined up along the river. Rebellious homemade explosives filled the orchards and killed peasants who ventured inside to look after their crops. The fighting cut off important roads and prevented fruit from entering the market.

Pomegranates died on their branches while field hands waited for the airstrikes and mortars and outbreaks of machine gun fire to stop.

The fighting finally ended when Kandahar fell to the Taliban in August, leaving abandoned police posts in the district, Taliban fox holes left in orchards and burning trees as evidence of the violence that tore through the idyllic swath of interconnected fields and dusty roads.

Safiullah, 21, a Taliban fighter from a nearby district who has been tasked with patrolling Arghandab as a newly anointed police officer, explained that over the past year he had sneaked through many pomegranate plantations, alone, to shoot at government troops. .

“Entire gardens were destroyed by airstrikes and mortars,” he remarked, staring at a severed branch that had been clearly pierced by a bullet. “I feel sad when I see the beauty of this garden ruined.”

At almost 80 years old, Lewanai Agha has been harvesting pomegranates all his life. He continued, while also fighting in the Soviet war in the 1980s as a rebel, surviving the civil war and the Taliban’s progress in the 1990s and the failed American invasion that began in 2001. But this last year was what broke him, he said.

In 2019, Mr. Agha earned about $ 9,300. In 2020: around $ 620, even though he was still able to maintain a cheerful demeanor despite the violent Taliban offensive that tore through his orchard. This year, Mr Agha, who examined only two tall pomegranates, spoke defeated and stared down at the ground. That was his whole harvest, he said, and next year there will probably be poppy stems in part of this orchard.

“We have been left in misery by all,” Mr Agha said. Six members of his family were killed during the fighting in the months since last harvest. “Eat a pomegranate and leave it all behind, it’s not worth talking about.”

For many years, opium yielded lower profits than pomegranates per. hectares, but what it provides is economic security. Opium can last longer and needs far less watering than pomegranates. And the sale and distribution of the illegal drug often depends on a network of in-country smugglers, so closed borders are no longer an issue.

“Farmers are rational actors,” said Dr. David Mansfield, an expert on illegal economies. “They can see the increased risk by continuing to grow pomegranate.”

It was as if Mr Agha and Arghandab themselves had finally been defeated after decades of abuse. Wells must now be deepened. Plantations and fields had to be cleared of improvised explosive devices. Some farmers sent flocks of sheep to detonate the bombs or hire locals. Burnt trees were cut and replanted and shell craters filled with dirt.

Hamidullah, 35, a pomegranate buyer who only goes by one name, has bought the fruit from Arghandab’s orchards and shipped them to markets in the city and beyond for the past decade. He quietly noted that “if the situation remains the same, we are afraid there will be no more trees left in the next few years.”

At another point, the decision to replace parts of his pomegranate plantation may have been unthinkable. But in recent years, Mr. Omar had lost thousands of dollars on overhead, such as fuel for his irrigation pumps and wages for field workers, without getting a return on those investments.

Enter Taliban and poppy. The rebels who became rulers have had a complicated relationship with the crop. During their first regime, the Taliban made several half-hearted attempts to curb opium before completely banning its cultivation for religious reasons in the late 1990s and in 2000. But after being overthrown by the United States, the Taliban dived into the industry by to use the illegal profits to finance their revolt against the most powerful military in the world.

The Taliban in the Arghandab district has given farmers access to grow the crop given the hardships of recent years, residents say. A few seasons of poppy growth may yield a lower yield than expected, explained Mr Hamid, the farmer who destroyed his orchard. But if the country’s Taliban rulers strike again, it will be a cash winner as supplies dwindle. Or at least that’s what he and other poppy farmers are counting on.

Although the Taliban expressed a desire to ban the production of the drug after the group took power in August, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an interview on Tuesday that there were no plans to stop or eradicate poppy cultivation.

“Our people are going through economic crisis and it is not a good idea to stop people from their only means of income,” said Mr. Mujahid, however, added that the Taliban encouraged farmers to “find alternatives.”

Poppy growth in Afghanistan has risen steadily in recent years despite the billions of dollars spent by the United States and others on the fight against drugs. The total area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 224,000 hectares – nearly 900 square kilometers – by 2020, an increase of 37 percent from 2019, according to a UN report.

“It’s a shame, we know, but we’re forced. What else can we do?” Mr. Omar said about growing poppy that stood a few feet from where Mr. Agha went on to throw away sour pomegranates. “Everyone fells trees.”

Yaqoob Akbary and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting from Arghandab. Sami Sahak contributed reporting from Los Angeles, Ca.

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