Reseeding Helmand Province

Nawa District, Afghanistan — Haji Mohammad Khan looked a happy man as he stood in the middle of a dusty compound on the edge of a U.S. Marine outpost in Helmand Province.

On one side, Afghan villagers from throughout the Nawa District were lining up, presenting identification to district officials and having their names checked off a list. On the other, 50 kilogram sacks of winter wheat seed and fertilizer were being loaded onto trucks and other vehicles the villagers had brought with them.  

“Before the Marines came the Taliban were here and they didn’t do anything for us,” he said through an interpreter. “The security is better now and government projects have started. 

“Look: People are getting seed. Maybe there will be less poppy.”  

Haji Mohammad is Nawa’s district administrator, a sort of sub-governor for 400- square miles of farmland and desert and 90,000 people. The district is believed to be the second-largest opium cultivation area in Helmand Province, which is the biggest opium growing area in the country.

According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, more than 103, 000 hectares of farmland in Helmand grew poppies in 2008. In 2009 that figure dropped by as much as 30 percent — due to lower opium prices, dealers hoarding oversupply from previous years’ production and drought — but each hectare of poppy still produced about 54 kilograms of opium.

That production fuels the Taliban insurgency’s wherewithal. The extremist group imposes “usher” (taxes) on virtually every step of the process – from growing, to refining the poppy’s contents, to transporting it within the country and to neighboring countries from where the drugs are shipped to overseas markets.  

“… The drugs trade remains a major source of revenue for anti-government forces and organized crime operating in and around Afghanistan,” Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N. agency, said in the September report.  

Added Mack McDonald, a U.S. State Department adviser in Nawa: “They (the villagers) don’t want to grow it. They know what’s going on out there with the poppies and who it supports.  

“Part of it for them is when the Taliban were here they were forced to grow it or because it was the only thing that was making money. It was survival.”  

Wheat seed distribution is part of Afghan government and international efforts to wean villagers away from illicit crop cultivation. Farmers are provided 100 kilograms of seed and 300 kilograms of fertilizer at a total cost of 700 Afghanis (about US$ 14.00). Wheat this year was sold at market for about 60 cents a kilogram, up from 40 cents the year before. That price can’t compare even to the depressed price of opium (about $86 per kilogram for dry opium and $61 for fresh opium paste), but officials hope farmers will avail themselves of the program.

The alternative is the threat of illicit crop seizures and jail and/or growing poppy but having no buyers as re-trained Afghan police and counter-narcotics teams crack down on middle men who purchase the crop.  

McDonald said the Afghan government is currently working on a plan to buy the wheat from farmers at a price that will guarantee them a profit.  

“The demand (for poppy) is still there,” he said. “The only way to negate that is if you have a program to buy the wheat back at higher prices, or certain prices. The farmer has taken out loans for the seed. The loan is due and payable at time of harvest, so that would drive down the price of wheat since everybody is trying to sell at that point. 

“But if the government bought it back they could stabilize the price. They are working on getting those programs.”

Villagers where there is increased security and where people cooperate with the government also are top of the list for projects to improve irrigation, build schools and medical clinics in a carrot-and-stick approach.  

Afghan and U.S. officials, however, aren’t naive. They realize eradication of poppy cultivation will be a long process.  

“They (the farmers) don’t have very high expectations” of wheat growing, McDonald said. “It’s just a matter of getting them to at least try to grow it and see what comes of it. And if they grow it, try to grow it, you still have accomplished the goal of there being less poppy.”  

Seed distribution in the Nawa District this year was the second time it had been attempted. Last year, the seed was given to local police who traveled to the provincial capital of Lashkah Gar to pick it up. U.S. authorities said that seed never made it to most farmers — the police apparently distributed it to friends and relatives.  

Increased security in the Nawa District this year — due to U.S. Marine presence — meant seeds could be distributed directly to farmers here.  

Tribal and village elders gave lists to the district government, which onpassed them to the Department of agriculture, Haji Mohammad said. The Department of Agriculture vetted the lists and once that was done decided how much wheat seed and fertilizer to distribute.  

“The initial lists totaled 40,000 people,” McDonald said. “I would imagine they put all their kids on, wives, all that stuff.”  

In the end 4,800 farmers were approved for seed and fertilizer.