Sunday, June 13, 2010

Make wheat not war: The British Army's battle to persuade Afghanistan's farmers to stop producing opium

Toby Walne, Mail on Sunday

Farmer Khanza Dah is in his greenhouse picking tomatoes and checking on his prized cucumbers. He wears the black turban of the Taliban but the only weapon he wields is a pair of scissors for pruning his fruit and vegetables.

Behind his fierce, jet-black warrior beard, he has a peaceful smile. Not all Taliban are terrorists – the Sunni Islamist sect also attracts people such as Khanza, who just want to be left alone, tending crops in Afghanistan's war-torn Helmand province.

Land of hope: A farmer spreads fertiliser over his wheat field

Speaking through a military interpreter, the 47-year-old married father of three talks softly in Pashtu. 'This job is hard but is good, honest work. Learning new ways to improve crops feeds my family and pays for extras we need such as medicine. It allows my children to go to school rather than work on the land.'

Khanza is one of the lucky ones. He is among 30 Afghans who have plots on an 80-acre farm, part of a new British Government- backed gamble aimed at getting the nation back on its feet through wheat and other crops. The hope is that farmers will be encouraged to stop growing opium poppies, which help fund the bloody war.

About £18 million a year is being ploughed in to help farmers rebuild shattered lives with seed, as well as hands-on support and security. The farm project also has support from the US and Afghan governments. The price of the Afghan war for British taxpayers is at least £13 billion to date, and rising fast.

But the greatest cost is in human lives – more than 290 British troops have been killed since the Allied invasion in 2001. There are 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan, the vast majority of them in Helmand. As we run out of ideas and money, the farmers could be our last chance for success. The troubles of the region are etched over the prematurely craggy face of another farmer, Saido Lal Mohammad, 45.

Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan has endured guerrilla warfare, Taliban tyranny, the current war, widespread corruption and ruthless drug mafia rule. Not surprisingly, it is one of the poorest nations on Earth.

Two-thirds of families struggle to put even basic naan-o-chai (bread and tea) on the table and the average life expectancy is 44. According to the Afghan calendar, the year is 1389, which seems apt. Saido is harvesting grapes on a half-acre plot, known as a jerib, on the same farm as Khanza Dah. But he admits with a furtive nod that in the past he has grown poppies – by far the most lucrative crop in the region. Nearby, two younger farmers – Naiz Mohammad, 17, and Haji Mohammad, 20 – are harvesting a four-jerib wheat plot at a backbreaking pace using sickles.

Wheat is the staple ingredient for naan bread on which the 28 million-strong Afghan population relies to survive. Naiz says: 'Wheat fills my stomach, not poppies. Farmers who grow poppies harvest them for opium and must sell this on to drug dealers. We want to be free of their control and work only for ourselves.'

The farm, at the end of a bumpy track near the village of Bolan, is a fertile spot in a largely barren country where only 15 per cent of the land is arable. However, the relaxed setting, five miles west of the regional capital, Lashkar Gah, is a dangerous illusion.

A soldier from 1st Battalion Scots Guards lets children look at his gun while standing guard at a meeting of community elders at a school in a village outside of Lashkar Gah, Helmand

We travel around the area in three armour-plated Land Cruisers with a team of armed escorts in constant radio contact. Carrying M16 rifles, they scan the horizon for snipers and mortar attacks from Taliban insurgents. The cracked glass on our vehicle's bullet-proof window and some improvised explosive devices (IEDs) found on the farm are proof this is not for show.

Suddenly a military escort whispers in my ear. It's time to go. Some suspicious movement has been spotted in the distance and there are fears that insurgents are homing in on our location. The British Government, largely through the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, has agreed to provide agricultural and related aid of more than £55 million over the next three years.

About 37,500 farmers in Helmand have each received 220lb of wheat seed, along with 660lb of fertiliser (not ammonium nitrate which is used in bomb-making) and a litre of insecticide.

Pomegranates, grape vines, saplings, cucumbers and tomatoes have also being handed out in smaller quantities as part of the Food Zone plan. So far 67,500 farmers have benefited in some way. Initial signs are encouraging.

Land in Helmand taken up by poppies fell by a third to 172,561 acres last year. Much of the 95,770 acres no longer covered in poppies was used for wheat farming instead, which enjoyeda bumper harvest in 2009.

Nationwide, wheat yields were almost triple those from the previous year, with 4.1 million tons harvested – although that is still not enough to fully feed this hungry nation. Reservist Captain Michael Whitehead, 26, is a counter-narcotics officer in the ProvincialReconstruction Team. The unit works with the 4th MechanisedBrigade – The Black Rats – which is currently in command of UK troops in Helmand.

Capt Whitehead brings with him valuable experience – he is a crop farmer from Marlborough, Wiltshire. He says: 'We may not speak Pashtu but the language we share is farming – it is a common understanding. Our job is not to tell farmers how to do things but to listen and respond to their requests for help.'

However, despite the positive comments, the experiment could yet fail. Afghanistan grows 90 per cent of the world's opium, of which 60 per cent is cultivated in Helmand province.

To read the full article, click here

1 comment:

  1. Firstly, I would like to say if the soldier in this picture was my son, I'd give you a 'slap' when 'home' for taking your 'eye of the ball' even for children - sorry, but 'heart and minds' costs lives....and it could be you...

    Whilst 'we' would like to change what the farmers are some stage, they will go back to growing their 'poppies' as they will never earn as much growing wheat etc..what 'we' have to do is 'punish' the people who buy the drugs (Worldwide)if we don't buy them, then they wont be grown..... (if life was so easy)

    I wish you Luck. x