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.