It’s a race against the calendar for British and United States to convince Afghan farmers to replace their yearly poppy crops with another seed. The planting season starts in October. In a nation where the population has become addicted to the drug made from poppies, opium, that will be a hard sell. Farm workers make double the money in poppy fields than when working with other crops. While using lower prices for wheat seeds could have a short term affect for some poppy farms the long term could be an additional problem. As poppy fields are replaced by wheat and fruit fields those who stay in the business will make even more money. When there is less of a product that is desired the price can be jacked up. Opium is part of the Afghan culture. Many areas used it as the common currency. It is grown in most family plots. That has changed as the government enforced a ban on the production of opium though. That ban has put many in this struggling nation in deep debt. Statesman.com reports:
“Now we don’t even have 10 Afghanis ($0.25) to give our children to buy bubble gum,” opium farmer Abdul Hay says. “Before they would go into the field and collect the money themselves.”
With the ban working well in most of the county now only seven of the 34 provinces have large fields. The rest of the nation is dealing with the poverty that the ban put into place with growing anger. Those farmers who could easily take care of their families with one crop of poppies struggle with reduced crop productions. The newer crops that the government suggested require fertilizer and water, two things that poor farmers can not afford.
“See this mustard? It can take care of my family for one month,” says 25-year-old farmer Abdul Saboor, pulling up a shoot of the green plant and snapping it open with his teeth. “When we planted opium in this same plot, it took care of all our expenses for an entire year.”
In many areas of the county entire families are addicted to the drug. Nationwide there are one million addicts according to the United Nations. That number say local drug counselors is at least double. Almost a quarter of the addicts are children and their mothers. Children grow up inhaling the smoke as their parents pass around the pipes. The government has buried their heads in the plentiful sand. CBS reports:
“Even Afghans aren’t aware of this problem, most people thought we were producers not consumption,” said Mohammad Zafar, Deputy Minister of Counter-Narcotics.
Families will use their last coins to buy more opium instead of food. Dirty, hungry children stumble around in an opium daze. The more remote villages are baring the brunt of the addictions. There are no treatment centers around the corner to contend with the effects of the addiction. In most of these small villages it is over a day’s walk to medical help. Opium is their medicine. The Toronto Star reports:
“Opium is our doctor,” says Beg, an addicted villager. “When your stomach hurts, you take a smoke. Then you take a little more. And a little more. And then, you’re addicted. Once you’re hooked, it’s over. You’re finished.”
Opium addictions quickly spread like wildfire through villages. Those addicted have no money to feed their families. Their neighbours provide for them but as they feed more and more they too become poorer. One mother Najiba started to feed her family the powerful drug to keep them from shivering in the cold winter. She brews the opium as a tea, its cheaper than food and she says brings her hungry family some happiness. Families sell their children for another fix. It is an endless cycle for these families. The Star reports:
Mohammad Asef, a health worker at the clinic taking care of Zaihar Pari, says he is worried about the boy’s chances of recovering. “In America people go and get high in the park. In Afghanistan, they do it in the home,” says Asef. “They bring it inside. They burn it on the family stove. Everyone sees. So everyone is affected.”
There is no quick or easy fix for Afghanistan’s poppy problem. Without crops that make more money the farmers will continue to be in debt. Without hundreds of treatment centers focusing on the most remote locations addiction will continue to multiply. Both issues needed to be addressed in the beginning of the ban of poppy production not in the midst of a crisis.