Monday, November 23, 2009
Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent
Hundreds of farmers blew into this town, the capital of Helmand, over the weekend - their "tuk tuk" motorbike trucks kicking up clouds of dust - in a peculiarly Afghan gesture of defiance to the Taliban.
They lined up to sign a pledge that they would not grow poppy next season, and to get sacks of wheat and fertiliser in return.
This was all pretty peculiar as the farmers come from the notorious Marja region west of the capital.
It is known for its beauty, its fertility as the garden of Helmand, and for being an area out of government and Nato control where local Taliban roam more or less free.
This did not prevent the droves of farmers, grizzled ancient sons of the soil and almost beardless boys atop their motor carts, signing up for the government's scheme for subsidised wheat, fertilisers and insecticide.
This is the second full year of the government wheat scheme. Altogether 39,864 farmers have signed up, a big increase on the 32,000 last year.
When farmers in Marja first planted government wheat a year ago, the Taliban murdered a district councillor.
The farmers called a Shura - a traditional form of consultation - and told the Taliban they intended to go on buying the wheat seed because they needed to - to earn a living.
The Taliban backed off, but kept a wary eye. Even at the wheat distribution at the government warehouse this weekend, one of the international supervisors muttered: "You can bet the Taliban are here watching. Some of the farmers will have pretty close links to the bad guys, and some no doubt will try to grow a bit of wheat and a bit of poppy."
The farmers buy their two sacks of wheat and four of fertiliser at a knockdown price of 700 Afghanis or $18 (£11) because of the near-collapse in the opium price last season.
The price of dry opium, the poppy resin concentrated in brick form, has fallen steadily in Helmand from $225 a kilo in January 2005 to $75 in April this year.
"The market has been saturated, but the price is likely to jump up a little bit next spring," said an expert from the British Government's special counter narcotics team in Helmand.
"But the overall trend of the prices has been a steady decline in recent years." Britain is one of the main international backers of the narcotics scheme.
Local Marja elder Haj Mohamed Talib, a striking figure in a high black turban, explained: "At least Kabul is now offering something really useful.
"The government also gives us pharmacies and clinics and the Taliban don't give us anything to help the poor and the sick."
Haj Talib, known as the local Mr Fixit, bustles over to the huge figure of Ray Watson, 50, a former Zimbabwe tobacco farmer who has become a key figure in an exotic agricultural organisation called Rift Valley Agriculture.
This was formed by a band of farmers thrown off their farms by war veterans in Zimbabwe over the past 10 years.
They are now known as experts in "extreme agriculture", helping farmers in lands battered by communal violence and war.
Now subcontracted to the British development ministry, Ray and his friend Fanae Ferreira, 51, whose Zimbabwe farm was confiscated in 2000, go out on the ground in places such as Marja to show the farmers new techniques in crop husbandry.
"The opportunity for different crops is huge - potatoes, pomegranates, wheat, alfalfa, tomatoes, you name it - the problem is getting it to market" said Ray.
"We show them how they can do better, and the increase in yields has been huge."
New roads are gradually being built across Afghanistan - shortish stretches at a time, and often under heavy security by British and Afghan forces.
The traffic between Lashkar Gah and the commercial centre of Gereshkt, and on to Kandahar has gone up visibly these past few weeks.
The roads are a big challenge to the Taliban because most people want them and are prepared to travel them even at the risk of being held up at Taliban, gangster or even renegade police roadblocks.
Since many of the new surfaces are tarmac, it is very hard to bury bombs in them quickly and undetected.