Afghanistan supplies virtually all of the world's illegal opium. Last year, the country's drug trade was a $4 billion business, half of which alone was produced in the south where the fighting against the Taliban insurgency is the fiercest.
Getting Afghanistan to rid itself of poppy is a pillar of U.S. policy there, because the Taliban use profits from opium as a source of revenue. For Afghans themselves, however, feelings about poppy are conflicted: It's harmful to their country and to their people, but it is also a livelihood for many where instability offers few alternatives.
In the third of a four part series, VOA's Afghan service examines the drug trade in Afghanistan's Nangahar province. VOA's Siri Nyrop narrates.
In 2005, Nangahar province was a shining example of successful poppy eradication. It went from being one of Afghanistan's top poppy-cultivating provinces to planting almost none.
U.S.-funded programs paid farmers to work on projects requested by the community, such as a water diversion project to expand the reach of the Kabul River. Many people believed that the government would fully compensate them for giving up the living they earned from poppy.
Within two years, Nangahar's fields were filled with poppy again.
"Farmers have gone back to growing poppy here because they're poor and desperate," says one farmer, Malik Chakan. "They were expecting help from the government that hasn't arrived. We don't have a health clinic, we don't have schools or electricity."
With Afghan poppy production providing almost the entire world supply of opium, Nangahar's fields became part of a battlefront. It's a controversial struggle between Afghanistan's need to curb its drug trade, and the farmers' need to earn a livelihood.
Eradicating poppy is a pillar of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, says, Ambassador Thomas Schweich Coordinator for Counternarcotics and Justice Reform in Afghanistan. "The United Nations says that you need to eradicate about 20 percent of the poppy in a given area in order to deter planting the next year. The objective is to not lower the number of hectares under cultivation. The objective is to interject risk to the farmer. What keeps them from planting the next year is the fear of eradication," he said.
It's hard for community leaders in Nangahar to make the argument against planting poppy when conditions for licit crops are so difficult.
Elder Dour Jan and fellow farmers have struggled with years of drought. A crop like wheat requires much more water than poppy, and poppy yields more income in just one harvest.
These villagers don't even have potable water. They have to go to another village and carry it back.
Arghandi Gul, Village Elder explains, "Last year they told us they would provide an alternative livelihood if we agreed to eradicating the poppy. So people happily agreed. In return for this, we got 400 bags of fertilizer for 4,000 homes. This year, we got sixty 20kg bags of flour for our village. That was their 'alternative livelihood'!"
No crop pays like poppy. But without rainfall or irrigation, it isn't possible to grow enough of anything else just to make ends meet.
The Afghan government will keep trying to convince farmers to stop growing poppy. The search is for an effective balance between the carrot of alternative livelihoods and the stick of eradication.