NEWS | Aug. 1, 2012

Making money without marijuana: Afghan farmers enabled to grow legal crops

By Sgt. Brendan Mackie , Army News Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (July 31, 2012) — With assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Army civil affairs, farmers in Afghanistan now network with traders to sell legal crops such as melons for higher prices than illegal crops in markets such as India and Dubai.

Cannabis is the most lucrative cash crop in Afghanistan, generating an annual income of more than $9,000 per farmer, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes. Last year, a Robat-area farmer more than doubled that amount by growing and exporting an even more profitable, but legal, crop: sweet melons.

“Products such as pomegranates, apricots, almonds, figs, melons, grapes and pistachios are receiving increasingly higher prices in these new markets,” said Steve Tavella, a field program officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, known as USAID. “Increased stability enables farmers to invest more time and money in their businesses without fear of war ravaging their land.”

In order for Afghan farmers to grow legal crops, they need reliable access to water, which is expensive due to a Kandahar province drought that began in the 1990s. Traders in neighboring Pakistan often provide financial loans to help with water costs in exchange for a lower rate on Afghan products, said Tavella.

“A lot of these [Afghan] people are just trying to survive, which is seen by the way some never get out of debt from Pakistan,” said Capt. Pennie Llorente, team chief with Civil Affairs Team 613 here. “They, more or less, are living paycheck to paycheck.”

This is where the USAID steps in. The organization assists local farmers in obtaining loans from different sources in an effort to disconnect them from the Pakistani ‘middle men’ and by linking them up with traders in the more lucrative markets who are eager to buy their products at higher prices.

In addition to assistance with loans and networking, USAID offers training for these farmers.

“We have provided training in integrated pest management, proper pesticide application, personal protection, and proper storage of these chemicals,” Tavella said. “As we have assisted in opening up new markets, we have also provided training in sorting, grading and packing produce for these markets.”

Teamwork is also a priority for USAID and civil affairs in Spin Boldak. Farmers are also now forming cooperatives where they are able to own and control their business by increasing their strength in numbers.

Since last year, almost 200 farmers have joined the cooperative in the Robat area of the Spin Boldak district.

“Cooperatives provide an assured source of supply. If one farmer’s crop fails there are other sources of supply,” Tavella said. “By pooling supply purchases, sales and handling and selling expenses, cooperatives can operate more efficiently, at lower costs per unit, than farmers can individually.”

All of these proactive measures are incentives for farmers to grow legal crops. These measures also provide the farmers with lawful alternatives in order to maintain financial stability.

Farmers face the threat of having their illegal crops destroyed by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government. Certain districts in the country have already begun this process, hurting farmers’ businesses and endangering their families as a result.

“As this Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan initiative matures, farmers assume increasing risk of losing their crops, and significant income,” Tavella said. “If a farmer has taken out loans with drug lords, failure to repay can translate to consequences that risk the safety of the farmer and his family.”

Although many farmers have profited by selling legal produce, it is unclear how long it will take for the majority of farmers to meet or possibly exceed the prices paid for illegal crops.

“That will take several years to determine,” Llorente said. “It has to be more of a commitment of the farmers that understand that selling illicit crops is not contributing to the development of their nation.”

Shadullah Khan, vice president of the Afghan-led Robat cooperative, said that his farmers are grateful, and have benefited from all the training and assistance offered to improve their way of life.

“My dream is to sell mainly to other international markets,” Khan said. “[To] get rid of those illegal crops and get a better name for Afghanistan.”