Opium fields are the source of survival of the Afghan rural community, as well as of Talibans

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:39:28

Beige. This is the prevailing colour in Afghanistan. Flying over the country by helicopter, following the Italian Armed Forces, one can see a show of primordial nature. The endless desert alternates with the ripples of the ancient mountains. Waterways are rare and even more so are any traces of human life.

Then suddenly patches of deep green appear before one’s eyes. The vegetation is luminous, emanating a sensuality in contrast with the void around it. ‘Those are all opium fields’, shouts the officer next to me into the interphone. ‘There is no plantation or small plot of land where poppies are not cultivated’.

Afghanistan is a narco-state. It is defined as such by many now. The UNODC, the UN agency for drug control and crime prevention, has come to the same conclusion. The rule of the Taliban, the shelter of al-Qaeda, the ring of the clashes between the west and the more fanatical currents of Islam – all this in most people’s opinion and perhaps approximately – is today changing identity. The drift taken by the country of kites is far from the ideologies. It is no longer the clash between religions and civilisation that is the basic explanation for its condition of constant war. On the contrary, the hundreds of millions of dollars, that make up the volume of business of the international heroin trafficking, are at the origin of the instability.

It was 700 million dollars two years ago. For 2013, earnings of one billion are forecasted for the drug traffickers who run the opium production in Afghanistan. Last year the country satisfied 75% of the world demand for heroin. A leap ahead is calculated to 90% for the end of 2013. Figures of these dimensions lead one to speak of the sector in strictly economic terms, as if it were any other commercial product.

But the opium poppy kills. In the west as in Afghanistan itself. According to the US Department of State, the use of drugs involves at least 1.3 million Afghan citizens. Opium is at the basis of heroin refinement and all its laboratory derivatives. Synthetic drugs pushed in the parks and discos of western cities. Drugs that claim victims in the youngest generations of our societies. It is all true. But it is just as true that opium remains the source of survival of a large part of the Afghan rural community. In the country of kites it is calculated that between 100 and 154 thousand hectares are cultivated and controlled by the drug lords. From the big landed estates to the family plots of land, where the poppies grow next to common vegetables.

The poppy plant does not need great care and attention nor specialised technology. Seeding is quick. It germinates with the coming of the spring. In these months the landscape of the country changes radically. Its valleys, until not long before covered in snow, and the banks of its threadlike rivers colour with brilliant green. The first crop is harvested after about three months. Few notions of agronomy, which any peasant knows, little water – therefore not even the need to create big irrigation systems – and earnings are guaranteed. Before the flower blooms, the bulb is cut with a knife. In the following days the wound secretes a resin which is collected by hand. Raw opium harvesting involves whole families of farmers: the elderly, women, children. Just like grape-picking.

It is difficult to blame the growers. In the past attempts had been made to substitute the opium with other products: sweet corn and potatoes, to the precious saffron. The United Nations, represented in Afghanistan by UNODC and the UNAMA mission, had undertaken costly projects for the development of the national economy. They were convinced that the bulldozers used to pull out the opium from the fields would have eradicated Taliban fanaticism too. The operation made sense on paper. The ‘Qur’anic students’ have always shown utilitarian interest towards drug trafficking. To sell raw opium means to get cash for the purchase of arms and the pursuit of their propaganda. To turn off this economic tap would have been even more effective than armed intervention.

But the plan came up against the social condition of the country. Of the 31 million Afghan citizens just 28% can read and write. It is difficult to hope for an economic conversion in this context. It is difficult to hope that the average Afghan peasant has the professional know-how to give up opium and pass to saffron, which requires enormous agronomic attention. Or more simply to the growing of potatoes, for which very damp earth is needed and not the sands of Central Asia. A comparison of prices is sufficient to understand the reasons why the destiny of Afghanistan is to be a narco-state. In the markets of Kabul, Farah, Kandahar, 4 kilos of corn sell for 2 dollars. Instead the profit on 4 kilos of raw opium is 100 dollars. Drug trafficking is not only a Taliban question. Undoubtedly, the warlords, rebel tribes, run-of-the mill criminals and also the Taliban get their source of conflict from opium. By using coercion they force many peasant families to grow poppies. Moreover by bribing the political establishment of Kabul they demonstrate a capillary control of the country.

However, the problem is not limited to their enrichment. Afghanistan is a narco-state because the economic survival of the Afghan peasants lies in drug trafficking. There is no lack of operations to combat this. The Afghan police is engaged all over the national territory in uprooting the plants, which begin to germinate in these weeks. In Herat and Farah, where the Italian military contingent is deployed, the interventions have led to concrete results. Here a stop in the production for this year is foreseen. This is against the current trend of the increase calculated for the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the roughly 10 thousand hectares destroyed in 2012 are not enough to make optimistic forecasts.