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Afghanistan – It’s being heralded as a first by old Afghan farmers who swear they’ve never seen such a windfall.
They are reporting record profits from a crop that does not kill anyone, does not fund insurgents and does not place them at risk of having their farm destroyed by the state.
In short, this crop is everything that the opium poppy is not.
Raz Mohammad strokes his gargantuan grey beard and sings the praises of his miracle crop: wheat.
He says he cannot recall a time when the staple grain competed with the opiate flower as a money-maker – until this year.
“I am 70 years old,” says the lifelong farmer. “I have never seen this, wheat at this price.”
While the country’s poorest consumers are suffering from the global spike in grain prices, the inflationary trend is being heralded as a possible solution to Afghanistan’s poppy-growing addiction.
Several farmers interviewed near Kandahar city all described record profits from this year’s wheat harvest.
Mohammad says he’s even received jealous phone calls from relatives who grow poppies in neighbouring Helmand province, calls that would have been unimaginable a year ago.
“They say, ‘We missed our chance this year’,” Mohammad says.
“They say, ‘Next year, we will also grow wheat. We will not grow opium’.”
Statistics provided by the United Nations World Food Program indicate that farmers received up to 40 times more income for poppy over wheat in 2003.
Such towering profits in such a destitute country help explain why Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world’s heroin, and why poppies account for a staggering half of the national economy.
But at a tribal meeting in a town lined with ancient mud-walled compounds, turban-clad elders crouch around a battered old calculator and determine that they’ve now made more from cereals.
Another farmer, Sher Muhammad, says he’s selling wheat at five times last year’s price.
Statistics from Kandahar’s Department of Agriculture indicate that wheat in Kandahar province sells for almost triple last year’s rate and now goes for about 60 Canadian cents a kilogram.
Kandahar’s director of agriculture concedes it would be a stretch to call wheat more lucrative than the crop that produces two of the world’s most devastating drugs: opium and heroin.
Abdul Hai Nemati estimates that a small half-acre plot of land would yield 500 kilos of wheat worth $285 this year. The same-sized farm would produce 12 kilos of poppy resin worth $571.
But he notes that the poppy holds drawbacks that can wipe out its cash advantage.
It is far more complicated to cultivate, and hiring outside help cuts into a farmer’s profits. And although the percentage of farms destroyed by authorities is miniscule, the risk of eradication is always there.
“Poppies are expensive – which is why people grow them,” Nemati said. “But there are also a lot of risks.”
A United Nations official warned against any triumphalism in the fight against the dreaded poppy.
She notes a somber reason for the high cost of wheat: it’s been a disastrous year for production and there are shortages.
Drought and locust plagues have driven down output by 36 per cent this year, says Susana Rico, Afghan director for the UN World Food Program. For farmers with poor irrigation, the drop has been twice as bad.
Last year, the country produced 90 per cent of its food needs, Rico said. The total this year is only 66 per cent. Malnutrition is a chronic problem in this country and now it’s even worse than usual, she said.
“It’s a horrible year for Afghanistan,” Rico said.
“A few people are making a lot more money, particularly those who have irrigated land. For those who rely on rain-fed production, the output has been devastatingly low.”
But the work of one Canadian agency might explain why so many farmers in Zaker Sharif are smiling.
The government-funded Development Works group has made irrigation one of its key projects in the Dand district, on the footsteps of Kandahar city.
It has built a bakery, a pharmacy and a local market as part of an intense economic-development effort focused on a small area that has seen relative peace.
Earlier this year, the group hired 500 local workers to clear out 65 kilometres worth of canals that had been clogged and ruined by decades of war and neglect.
The results were almost instantaneous.
Within weeks, patches of land that had been dusty and parched were sprouting patches of green.
Development Works director Drew Gilmour says it cost only $65,000 to double the amount of arable land in the area to 3,000 hectares. Thousands of farmers and their families are now benefitting.
With improved farming practices, he says, the poppy trade can be defeated elsewhere in Afghanistan.
“Opium is a vulnerable industry,” Gilmour said.
“Take away the illegality, take away the immorality, the fact is that farmers are not making money from it.
“There are many other industries – grapes, pomegranates, saffron, even wheat, lowly wheat – that can make them more money.”
Source:The Canadian Press
Date: July 22, 2008
By Alexander Panetta, Zaker Sharif