Afghan farmers bet on sweet alternative to opium

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

MAZAR-e-SHARIF, Afghanistan, August 10, 2005 (ENS): The factory is ready, the workers trained, but the rest is something of a gamble.

Will the farmers of Baghlan province, northwest of Kabul, plough up their poppies and swap the rich harvest of opium for sugar beet?

Many say that they will, even though poppies have been a reliable source of income over the years of jihad and civil war.

At a recently refurbished factory, the only sugar plant in Afghanistan, manager Abdul Karim Wazeri said he is trying to persuade all the farmers of the northern provinces to plant beet. If they do, he has pledged to buy their entire crop for the next two or three years.

Wazeri says that nearly 200 workers were already at the factory, being paid a wage of US$3 a day, and that the plant could process 100,000 metric tons of beet a year from which 15,000 tons of sugar would be produced.

At least one farmer appears ready to make the switch.

"Even though we'll earn less than with poppies, it will be much better because we can cultivate and sell sugar beet freely, without any threats or restrictions," said Taza Mir, a 63 year old farmer in the province.

Taza Mir is old enough to remember the days when beet was the major crop in Baghlan and the province was noted for its sugar.

"If the factory had not been damaged during the war years and we could still have sold our sugar beet, we would never have planted our lands with poppy," he said.

At present, Afghanistan imports around 400,000 metric tons of sugar annually from neighboring countries, mainly Russia and Pakistan, said Wazeri.

Getting farmers to switch from growing poppies to other crops has been a long-stated goal of the Afghan government as it attempts to shed its reputation as a narco-state, producing some 80 percent of the world’s opium.

But previous efforts have met with limited success.

Taza Mir said he abandoned a previous effort to grow wheat because it only earned him 50 dollars an acre, a fraction of what he could make growing the raw material for heroin.

"The agriculture ministry is closely cooperating with the sugar beet factory and is doing its utmost to persuade farmers to cultivate their land with sugar beet," Ghulam Mustafa Jawad, deputy agriculture minister, told IWPR.

He said that they will initially help Baghlan farmers and then move to other provinces to try to expand the beet crop, training farmers to get the most out of their land.

Before the wars, the main centers for growing beet were Baghlan, Kundoz and Samangan provinces. All depended on the Baghlan factory to buy their crops.

"One of the main issues is to establish a market for farmers’ crops. While the sugar factory was not working, no farmer was ready to use his land for sugar beet," said Jawad.

"We are determined to prevent poppy cultivation completely next year."

On the side of the ministry and sugar factory is the fact that beet is a legal crop. There are none of the problems that swirl around opium production - harassment by warlords, raids by police, the need for bribes to avoid poppy destruction, the chance of arrest.

There is also the fact that growing the poppies and collecting the opium is much more labor intensive than beet.

Farmers have constantly to weed between the poppy plants, while collection of the raw opium requires each poppy head being slit with a razor to allow the sap – a milky substance – to ooze out of the plant. It then has to be left for a day to dry out, ending up as pure black opium.

Workers have only 15 days in which to collect the opium from the time the poppy head matures, with the best time for "milking" the plant being during the heat of the midday sun.

"We have to spend the whole year working the land with poppies because opium needs to be worked on, and at the same time collecting it is also very difficult. To do this, we had to hire people and pay each of them 10 dollars a day," said Lal Mohammad, another Baghlan farmer.

"I used to cultivate my lands with sugar beet before the war years and I had good crops from it," he said.

In nearby Balkh province, farmer Noor Mohammad said, "If the Baghlan sugar factory contracts with us to buy beets, I will never cultivate my land with opium poppy. I and all the farmers had to plant poppies because we didn’t have a good alternative."

Plant manager Wazeri said the factory would pay 1,300 afghanis (US$26) per ton of beet. A farmer could produce more than 10 tons per acre, meaning they could make some US$300 for each acre of their land.

Opium cultivation, depending on the final quality, is known in some areas to bring a gross US$1,000 to US$3,000 dollars an acre. But that is before expenses and ignoring the risk of poppies being destroyed in a police sweep or the opium being seized as it is being smuggled out of the country.

Two German companies financed the refurbished factory, originally built in the 1940s. Wazeri said the plant had already provided some farmers with the seeds to produce beet and had told them it would contract to buy all their harvest.

And Wazeri is already planning for the future.

"We will set up two sugar producing machines during the next three years and then we will be able to process more than 500,000 tonnes of beets into 80,000 tons of sugar," he said.

"Farmers have already shown their interest in planting sugar beet and at present, dozens of them are coming to us each day and promising us that they will cultivate their lands with beet next year. And with that increase, the output of our factory will also go up."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}

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Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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