September Issue 2003
Fields of Death
Sixty-year-old Shah Jahan, who lives in the remote mountains of Kohistan in the Wari subdivision of the Frontier, is not intimidated in the least by the government clampdown on the poppy crop. Although he has witnessed a number of shootouts between the law-enforcing authorities, and the growers, he says that the tribals will not back down on the issue of protecting their own livelihood.
He recalls a fierce battle during the ’60s when tribesmen refused to pay government-imposed taxes on cutting trees. “The gunbattle lasted for over a week, but we refused to give in,” he says proudly, scratching his grey beard. “At an age when children in the cities are still learning to hold their milk bottles, our children are taught to handle guns,” he adds nonchalantly, displaying a locally made pistol.
The tribesmen had agreed to stop growing poppy a few years ago after they were persuaded to do so by their tribal elders. In return, they were promised that their areas would be developed. “Everybody knows that the government cannot cow us down through guns. We listen only to our tribal elders because that is our culture and our way of life,” says Shah Jahan.
After a lull of five years, most of these tribesmen have returned to cultivating the banned poppy crop as past promises remain unmet. Poppy growers cultivate crops on small landholdings, which make high monetary returns for the crop a prerequisite for survival. Non-availability of other high earning crops and a lack of alternate sources of livelihood are factors contributing to the resumption of poppy cultivation.
Although international donor agencies like the United Nations Drug Control Programme have allocated generous funds for the development of these areas, local people remain skeptical of the outcome. “I don’t know where this development has taken place; it must be in the files alone,” comments Shah Jahan sarcastically, pointing towards the surrounding villages, where people still ride for miles on mules’ backs to fetch drinking water.
After the initial ban on poppy cultivation, most tribesmen switched over to legal crops such as wheat, vegetables and fruit. Growing wheat instead of poppy in small agricultural holdings resulted in financial ruin for most of the villagers. “Most of the villagers went hungry during these years — we hardly earned enough for three meals a day,” says Shah Jehan. “Whereas we used to earn in hundreds of thousand rupees from the poppy yield every year, we barely made 20 to 30 thousand rupees a year from the wheat crop. How can an average family unit, consisting of 20 to 30 people, survive on this meagre income?” he questions.
Compelled by harsh living conditions and encouraged by the resumption of poppy cultivation in neighbouring Afghanistan, thousands of villagers in the tribal areas of Pakistan have opted to grow poppy during the current season. None of these villagers appear fearful of facing the law-enforcing agencies and believe that if pushed to the wall, they can defend themselves. “As you know, a hungry wolf can fight a wild lion, so anyone who tries to ruin our crop is in for a fight,” contends Shah Jahan referring to the anti-narcotics agencies.
The villagers in Kohistan are fully convinced that their actions are justified. “If we grow poppy, we will survive, and if we don’t, somebody else will survive. But why should we die to save somebody else’s life?” asks another tribesman of the same village. “We were at the verge of death after a four-year-long drought, but nobody bothered about our welfare during this period.”
Most villagers assert that they will only stop growing poppy if the government helps them out financially. “There is a simple formula, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” said one of the villagers smilingly.
Besides the higher financial returns it provides, poppy cultivation is less laborious and requires less water compared to other crops. The farmers also lack the expertise needed to cultivate other crops. They get advance payments from the drug traffickers during the sowing season and once the crop is ready, don’t need to worry about transporting it to the market or locating buyers. “Once the crop is at the final stage, traffickers collect the yield and pay in cash on the spot. In most cases, a good price is all but guaranteed,” says Shah Jahan.
Officials of the Pakistani anti-narcotics police vehemently deny that poppy is being cultivated in the bordering areas of Afghanistan, saying that they are presently being manned by Pakistan army scouts. However, a visit to some of these areas and an independent survey carried out by a private NGO reveals that poppy seeds have been sown in all the seven tribal agencies of the Pakistani tribally administered areas, including regions which had never been known to grow the crop.
One such report released last month by Environ Tech, a Pakistan-based NGO, cites the Betani area, Tank, Kohat, Bisham, Swabi, Upper and Lower Dir, Mansehra, Thal and Diamer. “The illicit crop has been cultivated on a total of 20,000 hectares of land in the tribal belt and the Frontier province,” the report contends, expressing fear that the Pakistani tribal belt will regain its status as a major poppy, opium and drug production centre.
Besides regions of the Pakistani Frontier province, sources have disclosed that poppy has also been cultivated on at least two to three thousand hectares of land in Kila Abdullah, Gulistan and other tribal areas of Balochistan, as well as neighbouring Afghanistan. “Much of the crop has already been harvested in some parts of NWFP province, while it is on the verge of being harvested in other areas,” contends one insider.
Other than the surge of poppy growth in Pakistan’s tribal areas, international agencies working against poppy production are also concerned about the production of a bumper crop in Afghanistan, where these agencies have estimated a record yield of 4,600 tons, more than the cultivation in the rest of the world put together. Despite the fact that the Karzai government has banned the cultivation, processing, trafficking and consumption of heroin in the country, agencies involved in combating drug trafficking believe that more enforcement is needed to help eradicate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.
Officials reveal that as a result of a bumper crop in Afghanistan and the surge in poppy cultivation in the Pakistani tribal areas, the price of poppy has declined by at least 20 to 30 per cent. “The pre-season price of one kilogram of poppy was around 50,000 rupees, but the same amount is now available at 35 to 45 thousand Pak rupees,” says an official. Attracted by lower prices of heroin, many international drug dealers have become active in the region. “Within no time, this deadly drug will travel to every nook and corner of the country,” he warns.
Over much of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, poppy is a traditional cash crop, feeding 70 to 80 per cent of European markets for heroin and opium. But the cultivation of the poppy nose-dived in Afghanistan when the conservative Taliban regime declared the crop un-Islamic. To ensure the implementation of the religious decree, members of the religious clergy were appointed in every district to monitor poppy cultivation. Many farmers who tried to defy the edict issued by Mullah Omar underwent severe punishment including fines, lashings and imprisonment, and were only released once they gave convincing assurances that they would never cultivate the crop again.
As a result of these drastic measures, the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan decreased to 7,606 hectares in 2001 under the Taliban, from 79,000 hectares in 1999. According to official figures, production has now increased to a whopping 90, 583 hectares. The 2003 Global Illicit Drug Trends Report, launched by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Paris last month, reveals that as heroin production goes down globally, a rapid increase in production in Afghanistan has fuelled the international market. The UNODC report states that a resumption in poppy farming after the fall of the Taliban in November 2001 brought world market levels down to those seen before major producers, such as Myanmar and Laos, cut production drastically in 2001.
Similarly, the poppy yield in Pakistani areas declined substantially due to serious measures taken by local and international drug control agencies. In a bid to eradicate poppy cultivation in Pakistan, the UNDCP provided huge grants over the last few years for the development of poppy growing areas to enable growers to switch over to other means of livelihood. This included proposals for setting up small industrial units and small loans to growers. These development projects in the poppy-growing areas of Pakistan, according to official figures, resulted in a significant drop of acreage from 32,577 hectares in 1978-79 to 1,554 hectares during 1995-96, and further, to 628 hectares in 1998-99. Pakistan’s outstanding performance in countering narcotics enabled it to obtain full certification as non-poppy growing country in the year 1999-2000.
However, besides continuing economic concerns, the change in the poiltical climate in neighbouring Afghanistan played a major role in bringing back poppy cultivation. Talking about the surge in the poppy cultivation during the current year, officials of an international drug monitoring body said that peasants in Afghanistan were encouraged by the increase in lawlessness after the fall of the Taliban, which deflected the Karzai government’s attention to other priorities. Its inability to control areas outside the capital of Kabul has resulted in near anarchy.
“Everybody knows that Afghanistan is now ruled by various warlords and there is no central authority there,” says a representative of an international NGO. He believes that in a situation where the Karzai government is unable to monitor the distribution of humanitarian aid to its poor, and international agencies have to pay extortion money to warlords just to distribute this aid, the government cannot stop people from cultivating the poppy crop.
Aid workers have revealed that in many areas of Afghanistan, warlords have set up fake NGOs that ask international agencies to provide them with food items for onward distribution. They then sell these rations in the local markets. “The looting of caravans of many of the agencies who refused to comply with these requests is a daily norm,” says an aid worker.
International NGOs engaged in anti-narcotics projects in Afghanistan believe that Afghani peasants have been encouraged to resume poppy cultivation by these warlords, who not only offer them advance funding, but promise high profits for the yield, as well as assurances of protection.
The monitors of the anti-narcotics organisations in Pakistan believe that the tribesmen on the Pakistani side of the divide are not only encouraged by the conditions in Afghanistan where poppy is being cultivated openly, but are also motivated by religious edicts issued in some agencies, including Bajaur Agency and Mohmand Agency, which declared the crop ‘Islamic.’
Local newspapers quote a religious decree issued in Bajaur Agency by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam’s (Fazlur Rehman group) Salarzai area president,Maulvi Fazal, who termed poppy cultivation ‘Islamic.’ According to some reports, the political administration of Bajaur Agency has since issued an arrest warrant for the maulvi. “This verdict was given after religious scholars obtained financial rewards from the international drug barons in the area, whose earnings suffered because people were not growing the crop due to various reasons. They knew it would encourage the unlettered people in these areas to grow poppy without any hesitation,” says an NGO worker.
Activists also cite growing anti-US and anti-western feelings in these areas as contributing to the increase in land under poppy cultivation. According to them, various religious leaders in the tribal zones had called upon Muslims to use drugs as an ‘atom bomb’ against the US and western interests. “When the western countries are targeting the Muslim countries alone, why not take revenge by growing poppy and smuggling it to their countries,” one of the leaders has been quoted to have said.
A record acreage of land has been brought under poppy cultivation in Pakistan’s Balochistan and NWFP this year, breaking the 1998 record of 950 hectares, the highest in the last four years. As a result, the UN’s drug monitoring body has voiced concern about the resurgence in poppy cultivation in Pakistan, a country which had successfully eradicated poppy cultivation years ago.
The crop is being cultivated in abundance in Tehsil Adenzi, Maskani valley in Samar Bagh sub-division, Sultan Khel Dera, Turmang Valley, Darwarra Valley, Dara Ushari and Dadwan valley in Dir sub-division. Sources said poppy has also been cultivated in parts of Tehmargarah and Dir districts. Other than this, sources reveal that the Khyber Agency bordering Afghanistan has cultivated poppy on 868 hectares of land, while the Khurram Agency has cultivated poppy on 812 hectares of land. “At least a patch of three kilometres in Malakand agency is under cultivation, while poppy in Tehmargarah and Dir districts is cultivated, but it is mostly grown in mountainous tracks not visible from the roadside,” says a source.
Sources said the heroin manufacturing laboratories in Wari Town and some areas of Bajaur Agencies, where the final yield of heroin is processed, have re-started operations. “These areas are located in no-man’s land, and the heroin manufacturing laboratories are small units set up inside houses which can hardly be detected,” says an insider. Additionally, zenanas (women’s quarters) are being used for this purpose which, according to the tribal traditions of Pathan society, are purely women’s domains, which no man is allowed to enter.
Sources also disclose that a few thousand hectares of land has come under cultivation for the first time in Kila Abdullah and Gulistan districts of Balochistan province. While law enforcement agencies in Balochistan claim to have destroyed one third of the crop, officials of the provincial government in NWFP have expressed their inability to destroy the crop in these areas, calling them ‘inaccessible terrain.’
According to some reports, the Frontier Constabulary faced tough armed resistance in the tribal areas of Balochistan during the operation to destroy the banned crop. “The areas in Balochistan where poppy is cultivated are known as smuggling routes and are infiltrated by criminal tribes as well as drug barons,” says an official. After the FC police jawans successfully destroyed the crop in some villages in Qila Abdullah district in southern Balochistan, farmers took to the streets in protest, arguing that opium cultivation was their only means of livelihood. They also blocked roads leading to Afghanistan for several hours. “No other crop can yield enough revenue to pay the electricity bills,” they argue, to justify poppy cultivation.
One of these protestors said they had no crops for five years and had lost fields and orchards because of drought, and their plight was completely ignored by the government. “Presently we are compelled to beg,” said a protestor, who said that the long-standing drought and soaring taxes have hit them hard.
However, the surge in the poppy crop is a particular cause of concern for Pakistan, as the latest ‘Drug Abuse in Pakistan’ survey reveals that more than 500,000 people are regular heroin users, making the country one of the countries hardest hit by narcotics abuse. Experts warn that the surge in poppy cultivation in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan means that the number of drug addicts in Pakistan will increase manifold. “The formula is simple. When the deadly drug is produced in abundance, the first transit country, Pakistan, is going to be its primary market,” says an official of the anti-narcotic force.
The diplomatic community has other concerns. They are worried that the return of poppy culture will translate into big bucks for Afghan warlords, who would then once again be able to finance their armies with drug money. ” If serious steps are not taken to immediately halt the surge in poppy production, it will, in turn, hamper the efforts of the world community presently engaged in restoring peace in war-torn Afghanistan,” asserts an Islamabad-based diplomat.