Of poppies and poverties ii

January 29, 2008

One of the talk shows on Tolo TV last night featured an in-depth discussion on counter ‎narcotics with a senior advisor of the ministry of counter narcotics (MCN). The ‎discussion partly touched on the debate that has been raging in some corners of the web ‎and here on this blog (although here it has been less than raging; it has actually been a ‎one-person shouting fest) –that is, the link between poppy and poverty. ‎

The senior advisor made an important distinction that I was glad to hear and I would be ‎remiss to not report, because it is in part an invitation to moderation on a topic that is ‎becoming increasingly ideological and polarized -polarized between those on the one ‎hand who believe that there is a direct and clear two-way lane between poppy cultivation ‎and poverty, and those on the other hand who tend to dissociate the two. ‎

And the distinction that the MCN official made was this: that yes, there are those farmers ‎who are driven to poppy cultivation primarily because of poverty, and because in the ‎absence of any off-farm income opportunities and small land-holding, the only rational, ‎economic choice that they can make is to get the most bank for the buck and grow poppy ‎on their meager one or two jeribs. This is the extent to which the link between poppy and ‎poverty holds. ‎
But this is not the whole story –no sir, not nearly. ‎
There are also those, the MCN official stated, that own vast tracts of land and are well to ‎do, and would be still well off if they grew all of those fields cotton or wheat, but still ‎grow poppy. These are the greedy ones –the ones that you can fly over their fields in a ‎helicopter, the MCN official said, and for as far as the eye can see it is a sea of pink ‎poppy flowers and slit poppy pods. These are the ones that can actually buy 160 ‎Sarachas. These are the ones whose aide and support to the Taliban is substantial, and ‎who live in a symbiotic relationship with the insurgency. ‎

These are the ones for whom I can’t stand anyone shed any tears on account of their ‎destituteness and their poverty. And I would argue that these are the ones who are ‎responsible for the bulk of that 92% heroin that Afghanistan contributes to the world ‎market. Here the link is not between poppy and poverty. Rather it is between greed, ‎poppy, terrorism, and the Taliban –and eventually Afghanistan’s downfall. ‎

And as long as there are these kinds of mega-poppy-farmers on the one hand, and ‎evidence of widespread poverty amid helpless farmers across Afghanistan (whether they ‎grow poppy or wheat or rice or barley in their lowly few hectares), to insist that poppy is ‎a direct outcome of only poverty is simply disingenuous and misleading, and it does not ‎help Afghanistan. ‎