The interim government vowed Thursday to eradicate Afghanistan's opium poppy crop, believed to be the country's major source of income, in a move that could wipe out as much as 70 percent of the world's supply of opium.
Starting Monday, the government will offer farmers $250 per "jirib" of poppy they destroy, said senior government adviser Ashraf Ghani Amatzai. The compensation is only a fraction of what they would otherwise earn per jirib, an Afghan land measure equaling 20,000 square feet.
For those who refuse to tear up their crops, joint task forces of Interior Ministry, provincial and local authorities "will carry out enforcement," Ghani Amatzai said at a news conference.
"Will people be unhappy? Absolutely," replied the senior adviser when asked about the political difficulties in eliminating the crop, a key income source for tens of thousands of farmers and farm laborers, and for dealers believed associated with some Afghan warlords and other influential figures.
"Some are going to make $17,000 per jirib" if they harvest their opium, he said.
Initial funds for the buyout program would come from the Afghan administration, but additional financing was promised by Britain, the European Union and the United States, Ghani Amatzai said.
The government would also immediately institute a program of labor-intensive projects, especially on roads and irrigation systems, to help employ affected harvesters, he said.
Eradication by government agents would be a major logistical challenge for the weak interim Afghan administration; up to 177,000 acres of opium - the raw material for heroin - has been cultivated nationwide in past years.
A preliminary assessment by U.N. drug specialists found that this year's crop would rival those of the past in size. It would have to be done field to field by tractors, since Afghan officials say aerial herbicidal spraying is impractical.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim leader, said his government is "determined to eradicate the current poppy crop."
"Continuation of drug cultivation and trafficking will endanger our ability to restore our good name and receive support as a legitimate partner of the international community," Karzai said.
His administration, encouraged by the U.N. Drug Control Program, had announced a ban on poppy cultivation in January, long after the seeds were in the ground.
Ghani Amatzai noted that the first harvests of opium would begin in about two weeks in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, and in the southern province of Helmand, Afghanistan's biggest opium producer.
"We needed to act very quickly, so that the first crops would not be harvested," he said.
The government of the Islamic extremist Taliban, overthrown in a U.S.-led war last fall, had successfully banned poppy cultivation in 2000, eliminating an estimated 96 percent of the 2001 crop.
But when the hard-line Taliban government fell, farmers quickly planted poppy for the spring harvest, believing any new government would be too weak to enforce a ban.
Afghan farmers generally can earn 10 times more profit from an acre of opium than from an acre of wheat. And poppy requires less water in the long run, than other crops - a key consideration going into Afghanistan's fourth year of drought.
Farmers are locked into the poppy cycle in another way as well: Drug traffickers advanced loans to many of them for seed and supplies, and only a harvest would free them from the debt.
By Charles J. Hanley
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