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Afghans are ‘out of options’ and desperately need realistic alternatives to poppy cultivation

As Afghanistan’s widespread economic crisis drags on and jobs become scarcer, the women of Dogabad village are finding innovative ways to support their loved ones, even as their own lives seem grimmer than ever. In this impoverished neighbourhood of Kabul, against all odds, women are taking the lead.

The restrictions placed by the Taliban de facto authorities on women and girl’s education and employment have shattered the dreams of many of the women here, but their spirits remain unbroken. 

Taliban’s Poppy Ban: Can It Work?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), through its implementing partner, the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR), is doing what it can to empower them via Alternative Development projects. 

These projects focus on providing small rural farmers and drug-affected communities with licit income generation activities to reduce their dependency on income from opium poppy or risk thereof. 

UN News spent time with the women of this tiny village in Kabul city’s Police District 7, better known as PD7. 

We also travelled to Nangarhar Province in the eastern part of the country. Visiting the rural districts of Gushta and Surkhrud we saw first-hand how these projects have helped regular Afghans make ends meet, particularly after the Taliban’s harsh decrees shut the doors of opportunity for women and left former opium poppy famers with no viable means to make a living off their lands. 

The women beneficiaries in Dogabad are provided with pullets, feed, and poultry farming training through this project, with a goal of giving families and communities affected by drugs some sense of food security and basic income.

Mariam* is a Women’s Empowerment Manager at DACAAR. She had almost finished her master’s degree in business administration before the ban on women’s education was enforced. 

She told UN News that she feels empowered because programmes like these give vulnerable women in Afghanistan the opportunity to be financially independent in the future, as well as the ability to support their loved ones. 

She says her job is to motivate the women and girls she serves, and her message is simple.

“I tell them: Please keep going. One day something positive will happen, and life will change. I will never lose hope and never give up on this opportunity. I will try. No matter how hard the situation gets, I will try my best.”

UN News / David Mottershead

Chickens provided by UNODC’s alternative development project feeding in a backyard in Dogabad village, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Dreams shattered

Many of the women involved in the project are overqualified to do this kind of work, but survival supersedes everything else. Fatima* was studying to get her master’s in economic management and working as an interpreter before the ban. Her father, a driver at a human rights organization for 17 years, lost his job after the Taliban takeover. 

“We didn’t have anything to eat. We borrowed money from so many people just to survive, at least until my father found a job. But he didn’t. So that’s why we had to sell our house.”

The family of nine is now renting a small house in the neighbourhood. This project is a lifeline. 

Eighteen-year-old Sara* received her high school degree just before the ban was implemented. In addition to poultry farming, she is currently volunteering at a small private school for children who cannot afford tuition. 

“I love my students very much, and I feel empowered by helping them become better people.”

She had dreams of becoming a doctor, but for now, those dreams seem out of reach. 

A sustainable model

Since 2016, UNODC has supported more than 85,000 households through Alternative Development projects. The UN agency has adopted a short and medium-term strategy to ensure food security, while also creating sustainable models which lure farmers away from the poppy industry. 

The years-long process of transforming a poppy field into an orchard requires patience but could be very lucrative if properly implemented

UN News / David Mottershead

A wide view of Haji Mohamed Iqbal’s lemon orchard which was supported by a UNODC alternative development project.

“Once a field is converted into an orchard, it will stay that way in the longer term, and there is less possibility for the farmer to again revert back to poppy cultivation.” 

That’s according to Hidayatullah Sapi, an Alternative Development Programme Coordinator at UNODC. 

UN News visited an orchard with Mr. Sapi in the rural Gushta district, an hour and a half east of Nangarhar’s Provincial capital Jalalabad. While the plot was never used to cultivate opium poppy – the main ingredient in heroin, UNODC supported its establishment as a preventive measure and used it as a demonstration for other farmers to be trained. 

A bright future

A drip irrigation system installed on this plot, home to nearly 1,100 lemon trees, has been a lifesaver for landowner Haji Mohamed Iqbal and his employees. Both cost effective and environmentally friendly, this system has massively increased his production and allowed him to hire two permanent laborers. In addition, as the land’s yield continues to grow, it has created jobs for up to 20 seasonal workers. 

“We have another orchard with same number of trees that yields 700 monds (4,900 kgs), but this orchard, which is properly designed and taken care of, yields 112,000 kgs of lemon. So, there is a huge difference between this and the traditional orchard,” Mr. Iqbal explained. “The future of this orchard looks bright.”

UN News / David Mottershead

Haji Mohamed Iqbal tending to his lemon trees in Gushta district, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.

From farm to table

Alternative Development is about much more than just providing support to farmers. According to Mr. Sapi, the projects focus on the entire value chain of a certain crop or product. For example, farmers are grouped together in cooperatives to give them a degree of bargaining power with traders. He further explained that UNODC has supported the processing factories with equipment and linked them to the farmers. 

“So now those factories are buying the products from orchards that we have established. They are processing [these products], packaging [them], and then supplying them to the market.”

Climate devastation

With its low altitude and high temperatures, the eastern region of Afghanistan is ripe for citrus cultivation, according to the UNODC alternative development coordinator. 

Yet, while the land here is fertile, climate change has had a devastating impact on local farmers. 

“When there is rain, there is enough water in the rivers. But floods can destroy the farmers’ fields. And in the off season, when there is no rain, the rivers are dry, and people lack access to water for irrigation,” Mr. Sapi explained.

He stressed the need for the international community to support farmers in implementing improved agricultural practices, especially installing drip irrigation systems so they will be able to use water more efficiently during times when this vital resource is scare. 

UN News / David Mottershead

UNODC’s Hidayatullah Sapi standing on the banks the drying “Red River” in the eastern region of Afghanistan.

Living in the now

Even though funding is drying up and has been since the Taliban retook the country nearly two years ago, hopeful farmers continue to visit Mr. Iqbal’s orchard. 

“They want to establish orchards [like this one], but they cannot afford to. And there are no more NGOs coming here to assist them,” he said.

Mr. Sapi noted that the local demand for citrus is astounding – some 200,000 metric tonnes annually – but only 10 per cent of that is met locally. This means investing in orchards could be a viable long-term replacement to poppy cultivation in the eastern region. 

In the meantime, people still need to make ends meet, which is why UNODC also supports the development of vegetable farms.

The Taliban authorities implemented a ban on poppy cultivation in April 2022, with a 10-month grace period. This year the ban has been strictly enforced, and evidence suggests that it has been quite effective. 

On the outskirts of Jalalabad city in Surkhrud district, UN News spoke to Fatehabad village elder Khanullah, who said the farmers he leads had plans to cultivate poppy this year, but the Taliban destroyed the crop before the harvest. 

The de facto authorities took their names and referred them to UNODC’s implementing partner, DACARR, which provided 21 farmers with 3 kgs of okra seeds and 25 kgs of fertilizer each. 

“There are more farmers who are also eligible for support, but since the project is small only these 21 farmers were selected”, Mr. Khanullah explained. 

UN News / David Mottershead

Former poppy farmer Mazar Shah irrigating his vegetable farm in Surkhrud district, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.

Out of options

Mazar Shah, one of the 21 men that received the seeds and fertilizer, told UN News that while he appreciated the support, he and the other farmers faced an uphill climb. 

Vegetables simply cannot replace poppies, he said. They all understood the harms caused by opium, but he and the other former poppy farmers were trying to survive, feed their families, and pay their debts.

“We were cultivating poppy because it has more return. If we are supported with the high value crops, we will never cultivate poppy, not in a hundred years”, Mr. Shah explained.

Afghan markets are flooded with vegetables, so the profit margins are almost nil. The price of 7 kgs of Okra when in-season is around 120 Afs, or 1.5 USD, and the vast majority of farmers do not have the capacity to grow in the off-season when profit margins are potentially much higher.

UNODC’s Hidayatullah Sapi warned of a growing sense of despair among vulnerable farmers. 

He said: “Famers have clearly told us that if the international community and the de facto authorities do not support [them], and if there wasn’t a ban by the de facto authorities, [they] will grow poppy again because [they] don’t have any other option.”

The humanitarian imperative

Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the United Nations has been operating under what is called a “Transitional Engagement Framework”, which largely limits its operations to meeting basic humanitarian needs. UNODC’s Representative in the country, Ms. Anubha Sood, said Alternative Development projects “definitely fall under humanitarian.”

She stressed that with the ban now being strictly enforced by the de facto authorities, “farmers need to grow something [so they can] put food on the table.” 

Ms. Sood highlighted the gender perspective in the move away from poppy cultivation. Women, she says, have been the most vocal in combating the narcotic crop, particularly due to its social impacts. 

UN News / Ezzat El-Ferri

Men walking in the Taliban-run Agoosh drug treatment centre in the Afghan capital Kabul.

“Women don’t want their family members to be involved in the cultivation of opium poppy”, the UNODC country chief said. “It has wiped out a generation. You see the impact even among your household members. Your young children are using it. Your family members are using it. Your husband is using it. Your brother is using is. So, it’s not just about economic gains. There are other repercussions, and now people see that. And women have been very, very vocal about it.”

Ms. Sood noted that many of the farmers who were supported by UNODC have made the switch in a sustainable manner, and those efforts are being replicated by others with the means to do so. 

However, she stressed that the ban has created a lot of suffering for the small farmers who don’t have the reserve to carry on. “Their crops are gone, and their families are going to starve”, she said. 

Since 2022, only $5.86 million (USD) has been provided for UNODC’s alternative development projects. The aim has now shifted to projects focusing on food security and has since reached some 14,000 direct beneficiaries, of whom 33 per cent are women. 

Ms. Sood stressed that the United Nations has taken the decision to “stay and deliver” for the common Afghan, “no matter who is in power”.

“These are the people that we need to think of when we sit and decide whether this money goes for this intervention. I think that is what should not be forgotten.”

*The names of the Afghan women featured in this piece have been changed for their own protection

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