Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Afghan farmers turn from drugs to fish

By Hamid Shalizi

SARACHA, Afghanistan, March 4, (Reuters) - Haji Anzurullah grew opium in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, but under pressure from the authorities he gave up the illegal crop and found a profitable alternative, fish breeding.

"I buy thousands of very small fish from Pakistan and rear them here. Once they are big enough, I sell them to fishmongers," said Anzurullah, who was trained in the fish farming business by a foreign aid organisation that helps villagers find alternative sources of income besides growing poppies.

Despite a 19 percent drop last year, Afghanistan still produces over 90 percent of the world's opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. Afghanistan's drug trade is believed to inject some $3 billion a year into the Afghan economy and the proceeds help fund the Taliban.

Last year, Nangarhar province went from being the second biggest poppy growing province in the country to almost poppy free.

This is partly due to Nangarhar's powerful governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, who has hinted at running in the Aug. 20 presidential election. Sherzai offers financial incentives to farmers in his provinces and assistance to choose alternative, legal forms of livelihoods, such as wheat farming or fish farming.

If farmers resist, their poppy crops are destroyed.

After the government razed his crop, Anzurullah, head of Saracha village on the outskirts of the provincial capital Jalalabad, turned his two poppy fields into fish ponds where he now rears more than 6,000 fish.

He pays just 1,000 afghanis ($20) for thousands of fish in Peshawar, just across the nearby border in Pakistan. He then grows them for about 10 months and sells them at a hefty profit.

Counter-narcotics experts say the key requirement to reduce opium cultivation is a strong government capable of carrying through disincentives that outweigh the considerable profits to be made from poppy farming.

Farmers also have to be persuaded that other crops can come close to providing a comparable income to opium.

"Economic and development assistance alone is not sufficient to defeat the narcotics trade in Afghanistan," said a U.S. government report on narcotics issued in February.

"Alternative development opportunities can and do yield reasonable incomes, but must also be backed by measures to increase risk to those who plant poppy, traffic in narcotics, and support cultivation and trafficking," it added.

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