ASAR TARGHAO, PAKISTAN — Poppy crops cultivated over hundreds of acres of farm land in Pakistan's rugged tribal regions are being destroyed on the orders of the local political administration.
For almost two weeks, security forces have been culling the crop, pulling out the plants blooming with pink and white flowers, in a vigorous anti-poppy drive in the lawless region bordering Afghanistan.
Officials say destroying the poppy crops had become impossible in the past five years because of ongoing militancy in the region.
Taliban militants have held sway there despite several military operations.
This has encouraged local farmers to grow the crop on such a large scale this year.
Tariq Khan, Assistant Political Agent (APA) of the Bajaur Tribal Agency, said that the administration wanted the tribesmen to voluntarily eradicate their poppy crop, and had asked for help from the local jirgas (tribal elders' councils).
“Around 1300 kanals (approx. 162 acres) have been cleared of the (poppy) crop. There are some more crops left, and we are carrying out talks with local jirgas for their clearance as well. Our talks are going on well, and God willing, the rest of the crops will also be destroyed soon,” Khan said.
He said the government had offered to provide wheat and vegetable seeds as well as fertilizers to the farmers as an alternative crop, but it was very difficult to lure the farmers away from the lucrative poppy yield.
Local growers say one acre of farm land in the region can produce up to 16 kilograms of opium, and one kilogram can easily sell for anything between Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 25,000 (approx. US$153 to US$255).
Farmer Haji Ameer Khan, 66, complained that the alternative crops offered by officials could not fetch even a tiny fraction of the income that growing opium could offer.
However, he said they had no choice except to give in to the wishes of the jirgas and the administration.
“The local administration officials are saying that this crop is not good, and they want to destroy it. Whatever we grow, we do it because of abject poverty. Some of us cannot afford a mouthful of food. So if any of us grow this, we do it because we are so poor. But if the officials are getting annoyed about it, we will not do it. Around 1300 kanals (approx 162 acres) of our land has already been cleared of the crop but now that the senior official is here, we have cleared another three fields. The officials are sitting here. Soon the rest of the crop will also be destroyed,” Khan said.
“We have been forced to do this because of poverty. There is no other way to earn a penny here. We have no money at all. If something else can get us money, why do we care for opium?” asked another grower, Malik Abdul Sattar.
The Taliban, while in power in Afghanistan, banned opium production, but since the fall of the Taliban, many farmers in Afghanistan are refusing to give up the crop because it is so lucrative.
Pakistan fears it could face a similar problem.
Pakistan is one of the countries hardest hit by narcotics abuse in the world, with more than half a million heroin addicts at present.
In Pakistan, drugs are mostly ingested orally, although heroin is usually smoked.
Health authorities worry that, with cases of heroin injection on the increase, particularly in the teeming city of Karachi, the risk of transmitting blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV is also on the rise.