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Bad harvests, like the one this year, leave Afghanistan's small opium farmers with few options to pay back landowners. In desperation, some growers have reportedly committed suicide.
The opium harvest in southern Afghanistan was bad this year. The reason was a blight of voracious insects - and it has driven many small farmers to the brink of disaster.
Afghanistan is a nation of small farmers and many of them rely on the opium harvest to pay the debts they owe the landowners. Most of the farmers do not have lease agreements with the landowners, so if they cannot pay their debts with profits from the latest harvest, they usually end up feeling the heavy hand of the drug barons.
Abdul Khaliq is one such small farmer in southern Helmand province, one of the main poppy growing regions. Neighbors recently reported that Khaliq and his wife committed suicide because they could not repay their debts. The landowner had threatened to offset the debt by taking their nine and 10-year-old daughters.
"They hanged themselves during the night because they couldn't stand the pressure. When the men came in the morning, the children said the parents were still sleeping. But the men quickly discovered the corpses," explained Mohammad Naim, one of the neighbors.
Authorities unable to cope
The police have a different version of events. Murder cannot be excluded, said Soraya Sobhrang from Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission. The official version goes like this: Around midnight shots were heard from the house of Abdul Khaliq. The neighbors immediately informed the police and the wife was found dead. The son was seriously wounded.
The authorities investigating the case appear to be unable to cope with the situation, said Sobhrang. Nader Nazari, head of the human rights commission in Helmand, confirmed that this was not the first time such an incident had happened. He called the Khaliq case a form of human trafficking.
"Besides the fact that the owners allow the illegal production of opium on their land, it is also inhuman, against the law and against Sharia that these men demanded the daughters in exchange," he said.
Drug-linked corruption is a major problem in Afghanistan, says Fedotov
In Helmand, many farmers have complained that this year's harvest was a disaster due to the blight. In the arid Nawzad district, one man said his crop was only one-tenth of last year's. Another man in Babaji district said he did not harvest enough to pay for his efforts.
Afghanistan supplies about 90 percent of the global market for heroin, with opium cultivation and trade equivalent to 16 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.
Less than 2 percent of Afghanistan's illegal opium crop is seized by security forces, says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Yuri Fedotov, UNODC Executive Director, said it was still unclear what impact the poppy blight would have this year and whether it would hit the crop as hard as a 2010 outbreak. But, he said, stockpiles were huge, so that even a dramatic decrease in production would not affect supplies on the world market.
Fedotov also said that drug-linked corruption was pervasive in the Afghan government. He also noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly stressed that drug trafficking and international terrorism were inextricably linked. Fedotov said that Taliban insurgents probably earned more than $100 million (80 million euros) a year from the poppy crop. The retail value of the crop abroad is in the billions, he said.
Despite internationally coordinated efforts to eradicate the crop, the UNODC says that poppy cultivation covered more than 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) in 2011, up seven percent from the previous year, while the overall harvest increased 61 percent.
Women as victims of the drug trade
Nader Nazari says the flourishing drug-based economy in Afghanistan is also one reason for increased violence against women.
"There have been instances where men who are in debt, due to drug addiction or opium growing, have demanded that their wives earn the money that's missing. The women have only two choices - to run away, or turn to prostitution," he says.
No matter which they choose, says Nazari, in conservative Afghan society they are considered as sinners, and that means that society damns the women, not the men who forced them into prostitution.
As international forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, the modest program to get farmers away from their dependence on opium production is facing an uncertain future. The poverty of Afghanistan's farmers and the powerful drug interests unfortunately suggest that the battle against the country's drug-driven economy may be futile.
Author: Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi, Gregg Benzow
Editor: Anne Thomas