The Independent -- London, October 3, 2005

Opium farmers sell daughters to cover debts to traffickers

Critics say the country is turning into a narco-state under the noses of Nato peacekeeping forces

By Justin Huggler in Laghman, Afghanistan
Opium

Afghan farmers prevented from growing poppies under a British-led eradication programme have been forced to hand over their daughters to drug traffickers to settle their debts, according to reports from Afghanistan.

The claim is the latest in a series to dog the British effort to curb Afghanistan's opium industry.

Opium dominates Afghanistan's economy, accounting for 60 per cent of its income. Critics say the country is turning into a narco-state under the noses of Nato peacekeeping forces, and of the Western governments involved in reconstruction.

The latest claims come from Nangahar province, which has been held up by the British, put in charge of the fight against opium in Afghanistan, as their biggest success. Opium cultivation fell by 96 per cent there this year, part of a 21 per cent fall nationwide.

But farmers are now coming forward to say that the forced loss of their poppy crop has left them unable to repay debts to drug traffickers who lent them money to buy the seeds.

In desperation, they have had to turn to a traditional Afghan practice in which a family can pay off its debt by handing over a daughter to a relative of the creditor. Usually, there is a marriage ceremony for the sake of propriety - but the woman is treated as property.

The problem is familiar to Mohamed Hanif Isamuddin from Laghman province, next to Nangahar. He has given up his poppy crop under pressure from the authorities. For one acre of poppies he can make 150,000 Afghanis (2,000). If he sows the same acre with wheat, he makes only 6,000 Afghanis.

Mr Isamuddin, 68, says that when the local authorities first started pressuring the farmers to stop growing poppies, the Westerners promised to help them grow alternative crops by providing them with free seed, but they got nothing.

Mr Isamuddin gave up growing poppies of his own volition when he heard that the government was going to clamp down. But further up the valley, he says, helicopters sprayed the poppy fields with insecticide.

The British, put in charge of the effort to curb the opium trade, say there has been no spraying. Although the Americans proposed spraying poppy fields, it was rejected because of opposition from the Afghan government.

"The government is doing the right thing," said Mr Isamuddin. "According to our religion, opium is prohibited. But if you have to feed your family, you do what you have to do.

"If people here cannot earn enough to feed their families, they will start growing opium again." Although he has not had to take measures as drastic as some farmers in neighbouring Nangahar, his son has had to leave home and go to Iran to find work.

At least Mr Isamuddin's son left voluntarily. Richard Danziger, of the International Organisation for Migrants, says that when poppy farmers in northern Afghanistan have a good crop it means they do not have to sell their children.

In Afghanistan's barren landscape, no other crop brings a return close to that of opium.

A French think-tank called last week for the legal cultivation of opium in Afghanistan. The Senlis Council pointed out the irony that, while Afghanistan today provides 87 per cent of the world's illegal opium, legal opium-based medicines are in short supply in Afghanistan and all over the developing world.

A handful of countries, including Australia, India and Turkey, grow opium legally for use in medicine under licences granted by the United Nations.

But drug companies have resisted the production of cheap versions of their opium-based medicine, according to Jorrit Kamminga of the Senlis Council.

The group's proposal was that legally grown opium in Afghanistan could satisfy its domestic medical need, and might even allow it to export opium for medicinal use. But the proposal was rejected by the Afghan government after being rubbished by the US and by the UN Office for Drug Control.

The Afghan government said it could not put in place safeguards to ensure legally grown opium was not channelled into the black market.










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