Weaning Afghan Farmers off Opium Will Take Time

Whether or not to plant poppy was one of the subjects discussed in Gorgak, Afghanistan by the Marines, the Afghan Army, and local elders.
The Marines, the Afghan Army, and local elders discuss whether or not to plant poppy in Gorgak, Afghanistan.

As part of our continuing coverage of "Afghanistan: the Road Ahead," - CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy follows the Third Battalion, First Marines at home, and abroad in Afghanistan.

When we first came to Garmsir in southern Helmand with the 3/1 Marines in April, there were poppy fields everywhere. Each patrol we went out on, we tramped through fields of the recently harvested plant, the bulbs scored diagonally to allow the resin to ooze out. After a couple of weeks the farmers returned to gather seeds from the dried-out pods and set them aside for the next planting season. That starts next month if they go ahead and plant poppy again.

In the village of Gorgak we went to a "shura", or meeting, between the Marines, the Afghan Army, and local elders to discuss that very issue. The district governor has said that he will not allow any poppy to be grown this year, and will eradicate any poppies that are planted. The Marines are more cautious - they say they will not destroy crops in the field, but will confiscate any large stashes of opium that they find. The concern is that over the years growing opium poppy has become a way of life in Helmand, supporting many farmers and their families. To simply forbid the growing of poppy without providing any alternative source of income will alienate many of the farmers, potentially pushing them back into the embrace of the Taliban.

The shura in Gorgak was well-attended - some 65 local elders turned up, all of them curious to find out how the new anti-opium policy would be implemented. USAID was offering seed packets for the farmers to grow vegetables instead - which may be of some use to them, but at most would help supply their own household food needs. Without any real infrastructure yet for storing and then transporting agricultural produce to market, few farmers stand to make any actual money from growing vegetables as cash crops.

Growing opium, on the other hand, is easy. The Taliban will supply farmers with seeds, and will give them cash advances against their future crop. The poppies require little water, and once the opium resin is harvested it can be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration. Blocks of opium resin - compact and easy to carry - can be used as currency in much of the area. The Taliban will pick up the opium from the farmer and take it themselves across the border to Pakistan, where much of it is refined into heroin for shipment and sale around the world. More than 80 percent of the world's heroin originates in Afghanistan.

The farmers are caught in a bind - they don't like being dependent on the Taliban for their income, and they are aware that growing opium goes against the Koran. But they also have families to support, and it is undeniably true that the poppy is perfectly suited to the arid climate of southern Helmand. The big opium/heroin traders may be invidious, but the farmers at the beginning of the chain are simply trying to survive.

At the shura, the elders all nodded at the imprecations against growing opium, their faces as inscrutable as their intentions. The Marines will not know for a couple of months how much poppy will be planted this year - the most they are hoping for is a reduction from last season. They expect that less opium will be grown in the north of the district, which was cleared of Taliban first, and that more will be grown in areas to the south, where the Taliban held sway until recently and still have some residual influence.

Perhaps the main lesson is that the opium poppy is not the root of the problem, it is merely a symptom. In areas under Taliban control, where there is little freedom of movement, it makes sense to grow opium. But in areas where the government is in control, where merchants and trucks can move freely, where farmers have access to seeds, where irrigation is properly managed, where there is an infrastructure for storing produce - even refrigerating it if necessary - then it makes sense to grow other crops. Weaning the farmers off opium will take some time. They have been doing it for 30 years. The elders at the shura all listened politely to the official message banning opium growing - but they will make up their minds on opium according to their own self-interest. It will be interesting to see how many pink poppy flowers grace the fields of Garmsir next spring.

More of Terry McCarthy's "Thundering Third" Blogs:

Concrete Results for Marines in Safar Bazaar

Marines Help Afghan Kids Go to School

The Most Dangerous Job in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a Beautiful Desert Goes Boom

Marines Navigate Poppy Fields, and the People In Afghanistan