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HomeInternationalFrom Pomegranate to Opium: Afghans turning to opium cultivation amid hard times

From Pomegranate to Opium: Afghans turning to opium cultivation amid hard times

Kabul: The scars of the bullet riddled trunks with shrapnel still embedded onto the trees, retelling the stories of violence and war the fields of rural Afghanistan has witnessed. The sweetened pomegranate fruits are nowhere to be found. With no profit in sight, farmers are now turning to opium cultivation as the war ravaged country plummets into an economic downfall.

“There’s no water, no good crops,” Mr Hamid, 80, said, the steady burp of a chain saw drowning out his bleak assessment. The lack of rain and diminishing well water had made it nearly impossible to irrigate the tree year-round, leaving portions of this year’s harvest burned from dehydration. The Taliban’s military campaign over the last year didn’t help.

The decision to destroy his entire orchard is one Mr. Hamid and many other Afghan farmers in the district are making to earn an income after a series of devastating harvest seasons.

A crippling drought, financial hardships, and unpredictable border closures at the war’s end have sent them scrambling for the security of the region’s most reliable economic engine: growing opium poppy.

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One orchard-turned-poppy field means little on the broader scale of Afghanistan’s opium output, the largest in the world, accounting for more than 80 percent of the world’s supply, according to the Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

But what is happening in major parts of Afghanistan, in the middle of a dire economic collapse that has led to a nationwide cash crunch, may have ramifications for the drug’s production and trafficking across Afghanistan. Many fear that this season is an early warning of much higher cultivation in the future.

The pomegranate is undoubtedly the pride of southern Afghanistan, and long a valuable export. Farmers whose families have worked the orchards for most of remembered time mark their hauls so buyers and exporters know from where it came.

The red fruit is traditionally exported to Pakistan, India and sometimes the Persian Gulf, but recent border restrictions and airport closings since the Taliban’s seizure of power have made trade extremely difficult. The border with Pakistan is sometimes closed and sometimes open, a fitful pattern that antagonizes the afghan pomegranate farmers and buyers to no end as they try to time their harvests, sales and exports.

Enter the Taliban and poppy. The insurgents-turned-rulers have had a complicated relationship with the crop. During their first regime, the Taliban made several halfhearted attempts to restrict opium before altogether banning its cultivation on religious grounds in the late 1990s and in 2000. But after they were toppled by the United States, the Taliban dove into the industry, using the illicit profits to fund their insurgency against the most powerful military in the world.

The Taliban in Arghandab district have given farmers a pass to grow the crop given the hardships of the last few seasons, residents say. A few seasons of poppy growth might yield a lower than expected return, explained Mr. Hamid, the farmer who destroyed his orchard. But if the country’s Taliban rulers again clamp down, it will be a cash windfall as supplies dwindle. Or at least that is what he and other poppy farmers are counting on.

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

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

Poppy growth in Afghanistan has steadily increased in past years despite the billions of dollars spent by the United States and others on counternarcotics efforts. The total area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 224,000 hectares — almost 900 square miles — in 2020, a 37 percent increase from 2019, according to a United Nations Report.



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