Afghanistan will ask international donors next month for $4 billion to revive its agricultural sector, but it could be a hard sell with another massive crop of opium expected this year.
Despite the sharply rising price of grain, foreign-funded efforts to promote legal alternatives to the narcotic have largely failed.
Farmers still make much more from growing poppy, the raw material for heroin, which flourishes amid Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency and rampant lawlessness. Half of the country's production comes from Helmand province, a stronghold of insurgents.
Roughly one out of every seven farmers in this predominantly rural nation of 32 million people grow opium. Giving them alternatives is part of Afghanistan's plan to invest $4 billion over the next five years in its outdated agricultural sector.
It will present the plan at a conference of international donors in Paris on June 12 — a key plank of its $50 billion appeal to fund development in the war-ravaged country.
"I think the food crisis we have been experiencing here and in many other countries illustrates clearly the need to devote more attention to that sector," said Kai Eide, the top U.N. envoy in the country.
Switching to another crop
The rising cost of food worldwide would appear to be an attractive incentive for farmers to abandon drug production. Wheat prices rose by some 75 percent in Afghanistan between January and April because of shortages, after another spike in 2007.
Abdul Qadus, an opium farmer from Kandahar, said he would consider switching to wheat after about half of his poppy fields failed this year because of a harsh winter and lack of rain.
Also, the price of the best quality opium paste has dropped to $85 per kilogram compared to $110 last year.
"As the price of (opium) goes down day by day and that of flour goes up, we are thinking that maybe in the future we will decide to sow wheat," said Qadus, who completed his harvest earlier this month. "At least we might be able to feed our children that way."
But there is still a huge price difference. In 2007, the gross income from a hectare of opium was nearly 10 times what it was for wheat.
The challenges of weaning farmers off poppy and growing legal crops are most acute in Helmand, which remains too dangerous for most foreign aid groups to operate.
Matt Waldman, a policy adviser for the aid group Oxfam, said efforts so far have been "fragmented and seriously underfunded."
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, said too much focus has been put on military action and not enough on investing in job creation and rural development after the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban nearly seven years ago.
"If (the Bush administration) had started in 2001, we would have gotten somewhere by now, but they started only in 2004 and with poorly designed and implemented programs that are still inadequate, despite some improvement," he said.
The United States has spent $878 million in alternative livelihood and agriculture programs since 2001, and trained 1.5 million farmers in modern farming practices, the U.S. embassy says. Other Western nations, particularly Britain, have also contributed millions.
Loren Owen Stoddard, the director of USAID's Alternative Development and Agriculture office, said it wants to establish supply chains to encourage Afghan farmers to grow fruit for export and to rear livestock and produce vegetable oil for the domestic market.
But many remain skeptical that the infusion of aid money will translate into benefits for farmers — overcoming chronic problems of poor infrastructure, insecurity and corruption.
"If they (farmers) grow pomegranates, who will finance the cost of irrigation and labor before the harvest? Who will prevent them from getting robbed on the way to market? Who will export the pomegranates in proper packaging to a market where they can make money?" said Rubin. "The opium industry solves all these problems for the farmers. Giving them a bunch of seeds does not solve these problems."
Authorities have fought the opium harvest by sending police eradication teams and even paying farmers to destroy their own poppy crops. Clerics have been urged to tell villagers that growing the narcotic is un-Islamic.
But even as anti-drug aid has soared, so has opium production.
In 2003, 197,680 acres of land was used to cultivate poppy. By 2007, that number had jumped to 476,900 acres. Opium production topped 9,000 tons, enough to make over 880 tons of heroin. The country now accounts for 93 percent of world production, the U.N. says.
Figures for 2008 are not yet available, but counter-narcotics officials expect only a slight drop in land being cultivated for opium compared with 2007. Poor weather, however, will mean a lower yield per hectare so the total quantity of opium produced should fall.
The Ministry of Counter Narcotics says that 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces will be poppy-free this year — compared with 13 provinces in 2007. But in the south where most of the opium is grown, cultivation remains rampant — particularly in Helmand.
There, opium traffickers and traders appear to be doing a better job of supporting farmers than development agencies. They provide the farmers with credit, seeds and fertilizer ahead of planting season, said Sarah Chayes, who runs a small private company in Kandahar that buys ingredients from farmers to make natural skin-care products.
After the harvest, the drug traders collect the opium paste directly so the farmer does not have to find a market for it, she said.
Aid groups need to "mimic what traffickers offer to farmers," Chayes said.