Beautiful fire-orange poppies are blooming again in Afghanistan. That is, opium poppies.
Two years ago, Afghanistan was virtually poppy-free. The strict Islamic militia group, the Taliban, banned its growth under the most dire consequences for non-compliance. The UN-backed Afghan democracy has attempted to curb poppy production and trade, but with little success. Some claim that deterrence efforts have been weak and sporadic because...well, poppies bring a steady, strong flow of cash into the country, something that Afghanistan sorely needs. The government doesn't have funds to aid poor Afghanis, or to establish effective law enforcement.
The crop is being grown mainly by the poorest farmers so that they can feed their families. They work long and hard with their oxen and rudimentary tools, load up their donkeys and drive them to the border where they sell their harvests to the highest bidder. Growing wheat on a half-acre of land may yield a farmer $70 a year, which barely pays for next year's fertilizer. Growing poppies on that same half-acre will earn about $1,230, which is enough to feed their families, buy fertilizer and "maybe even buy a refrigerator."
Said one farmer to the Washington Post, "We know that poppy is harmful and it is against Islam. We are not enemies of humanity, but we have no factories or roads....Everything we have comes from poppy. Before, people were eating spinach, and now they are eating meat." Some families have been able to buy concrete blocks to build houses after decades of living in mud-walled huts.
Small farmers become indebted to opium traders to buy fertilizer and equipment, though. Officials at road checkpoints commonly extort cash from travelers to the border. And sadly, Afghanis themselves often become users of their opium harvest. The violence, corrupton and sophisticated dealing associated with drug production is not yet present in Afghanistan, but can be expected to grow in this fertile climate.
Until the United Nations more strongly supports Afghanistan's and other country's fledging attempts at democracy, people will continue to do what they can to support their families. Half-measures rarely ensure success.
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