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“What Southern Afghanistan needs is peace”

According to Thomas Hartmanshen, peace is the key to fostering an alternative development in poppy-growing areas.


01 / 2009

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Thomas Hartmanshen, I’m working for German Technical Corporation (GTZ), and my work over the past 5 years has focused on development issues in Afghanistan, and more specifically, for 2 years now, on the relationship between development and the cultivation of opium poppy. My main job is to give advice to decision-makers within our GTZ projects in Afghanistan. Our projects deal with livelihoods, rural development, assistance to development. Some of these projects are located in the Northern part of Afghanistan, and there is also a big project in Eastern Afghanistan. I have an advisory role for people within these projects, those who are responsible for the implementation of the projects. I am also involved in the consignment project. At the moment, we are starting to look into what we could do in other regions of Afghanistan. We work with different donors. There is for example our own government, the German government, different ministries, but also the European Commission, and we are also in contact with the Dutch embassy.

Basically, you work for governments and states?

That’s where the money is coming from. We are working for and in favour of the population. Our purpose is to participate in the civilian development of the country, which has been defined as one very important aim, together with the military reconstruction of the country. A big part of the international community is working on the security issue and on military reconstruction, but we are working on the civilian side of reconstruction. Our work has nothing to do with military reconstruction. We try to co-operate, but the objective is different.

What is the aim in this ‘civilian reconstruction’?

The aim is to reduce poverty and to try to guide external assistance so that the population can improve their livelihood. On the basis of a livelihood analysis, we are able to identify the most important gaps in the assistance provided. And we try to help filling these gaps. For example: Afghan livelihoods are entirely dependent on agricultural production, which in turn is dependent on a good and functional irrigation system. But during the last 20 or 30 years, the irrigation system has been affected by problems such as climate change. There is no longer enough snowfall in winter, there are hot temperatures in the springtime, and so there is not enough water for the irrigation system in the summertime. People don’t have any certainty any more about whether they’ll be able to grow a summer crop.

Furthermore, while the population was in refugee camps, the irrigation system and the whole infrastructure became more fragile. We have to ensure the regular maintenance of these systems, otherwise there is a risk that they will fall apart.

The third problem is the important demographic growth. The old systems are no longer able to satisfy all the people living in one area, in one village. You have land fragmentation.

So our job is to identify these gaps, and to have them included and taken into account in the assistance provided to the population. The gaps are identified by the population themselves, through standardized questionnaires and thorough interviews with certain key actors.

Are we talking here about cultivation of poppy?

Not really. We know where poppy is being grown and we try, in an indirect manner, to assist the population so that they are able to respect the opium poppy ban. It is clear to everybody that it is illegal to grow opium poppy. So we try to assist the population so that they can become independent from the cultivation of poppy. But we don’t begin by discussing this issue. We try to keep an interesting dialogue open, without discussing very sensitive things such as opium poppy. We have a problem in Afghanistan: when you start talking to farmers about opium poppy, they cannot be sure what kind of assistance are you willing to give them. Are you a representative of eradication policies? What else? What are you doing? We need confidence between the population and other actors, both national and international. So our job is also to speak with representatives of different ministries, and remind them that there are alternative ways to convince the population: there is no need to always start by putting pressure on them. When there are alternatives, when they are able to base their livelihood on their own resources, they can become more and more independent of poppy cultivation. This is our policy, this is the idea behind our approach.

On the basis of your experience and expertise on Afghanistan, what is the work that needs to be done there? Continue this process of education of the population? What alternatives should be implemented or enforced?

There is still a long way ahead, because the progress of development in Afghanistan is very slow. There are several explanations for it. What are the main factors of underdevelopment? One is education. There is a very low level of education in Afghanistan. What we are doing is starting at a certain level, starting where gaps in the livelihood systems have been identified. Six years ago, it was mainly drinking water. Part of this problem is now solved. Another problem was that there are many gaps in the traffic infrastructure, and so the international community invested much money in extending the communication network (roads, etc).

It is a big challenge, but we have to start somewhere, in co-operation with decision-makers in Afghanistan. There are many actors involved.

What I see now is that where people started to produce opium poppy - not in a traditional manner - was where the state/government was not yet in place. In 2002/2003, when everything was new, many people started producing opium poppy, even in regions where opium poppy had never been cultivated. They tried to use this gap, this non-existence of the government, this absence of control. But these very same people are finally also good indicators of the fact that an opium poppy ban or an opium poppy control can be achieved, even in Afghanistan. Because these people in Eastern Afghanistan, in Laghman or Nangarhar had a functional livelihood, sufficient to cater their own needs within a subsistence-oriented agricultural production, and to deliver legal products to the market. It was functional. Nonetheless they tried to produce opium poppy. But when the government started an opium poppy ban, they were ready to stop.

But the problem is that now, in Afghanistan, the majority of opium poppy is produced in the South. And there you have something like war, and there is a total absence of governmental functions and government systems, no possibility for the Afghan state or the international community to carry out the opium poppy ban; opium poppy is there, and it is growing in the shadow of the conflict. The government does not have possibilities at the moment to control it in the same way that it does in other regions (North, Southeast, or East). The South represents 90% of the production of opium poppy within Afghanistan, and the other 10% is located outside of the war zone. So there is a close and significant correlation between conflict and production of opium poppy in Afghanistan.

Would you say then that a good policy aiming at the control of poppy cultivation is a matter of state-control and law-enforcement?

It works. There are other examples in the world. We don’t have poppy production everywhere climate conditions would favor its cultivation; there is a lot of poverty in the world, and nevertheless there are only few countries where poppy is grown. Not all poor people are producing opium poppy. It is a minority in comparison with other countries. So, where the government exists and where there is an effective system of control, you have a good basis for controlling opium. So what we need in the Southern Afghanistan is peace. Without peace, people make their decisions without thinking further ahead than the next day. And they don’t have much to lose, since there is no government control. With the end of violence, people there will start thinking about the future, 2, 5 or 10 years ahead. At the moment, it is just not possible in Southern Afghanistan.

When you say that the war and the cultivation of poppy are interrelated, who is the most interested in the economy that it is generating? What is fuelling poppy cultivation? Is it the consumer market? Is it the need to finance the war?

The war, the extremist Taliban movements are indeed partly financed through opium, but I don’t think that this is their main source of income. Money for this war is coming from outside the country. I cannot imagine that this war could be financed solely by opium poppy. But, nonetheless, part of the money coming from the laboratories is controlled by the Taliban, and they use it to finance the war.

The main reason why poppy is cultivated is that if you cultivate one square metre of opium poppy, you are often able to earn enough income to feed a whole family for a year. There has been recently, however, a new development. The price of basic food staples, above all maize and wheat, has increased dramatically for the last year and a half. Wheat is a very important product for people in Afghanistan, because bread plays a key role in Afghan culture. In October or November 2004, the income you could generate from poppy was about 20 to 1 compared to what you could earn from growing wheat. But 4 years later it was only 2.5 to 1. The factor has been reduced by 10. So it is no longer as interesting to grow poppy. We are waiting for some strong data on what the impact of this price development will be, but it seems (as our own analysis in Kandahar has shown) that we can anticipate a significant reduction of poppy cultivation, even though it will still be cultivated to a certain extent.

But there are many factors involved, because Afghanistan became dependent on wheat imports from Pakistan.

Regarding poppy, the main problem is that there can only be an alternative development in Afghanistan if the farmers have the guarantee that they will be able to harvest in the summer. When they had wheat in winter and maize in summer, the majority were able to base their livelihood on the production of legal crops. And having enough maize in autumn is a guarantee to have enough fodder for livestock in winter. When you don’t have any guarantee for the summer season, it is very hard to cultivate wheat in winter. Because, in this case, wheat will never give enough for their own family’s consumption and to sell on the market for 12 months.

You always talk about finding substitutes for poppy and about how people could live on other crops, but does it create that much damage to cultivate poppy that it should be considered to be something to not look at? Do you think that opium, when possible, should always be replaced by other crops? Or do you think that there should also be a move towards normalizing this crop?

If Afghanistan were a functional state, this could be an option. Parts of the opium production could be made legal. But, at the moment, it is not so. If you legalize parts of opium poppy production in Afghanistan, the impact would be that opium poppy would come back in regions where it is no longer cultivated.

The main producers of opium poppy for legal medical purposes are Turkey and India, and the world market for this legal opium seems to be in short supply. So there are limited opportunities of producing opium for the legal market. But, in Afghanistan, it is still not possible. It could be possible, but this would not be a solution for illegal opium production. Because illegal opium production means that the state has no access not means of control. If you want legal production, you need government control. So what will happen is that where the government has access, legal poppy cultivation will come back, while the problem in the remore areas of Afghanistan, where the governement doesn’t have access, will remain completely unsolved. So legalization of opium poppy, even partial, won’t have no consequence whatsoever on illegal production in Afghanistan.

I would like to clarify something: the level of poverty in Afghanistan is tremendous, and their livelihood systems are under severe stress. At the moment (maybe in 10 years it will be different), the farmers are needing assistance to fill in the existing gaps in their existing farming systems. They don’t need another cultivation, another crop. They are not in a situation where they coule reflect about the fact that, given that opium poppy production gives 5 dollars per square meter, alternative crops could be identified which could also generate 5 dollars or more in Afghanistan. The current issue is that there are gaps in the livelihood systems: no good access to irrigation water in summer, not enough food for cows in winter, .

Many organisations made this mistake, only thinking about new crops. There are examples where people started to advise farmers to cultivate roses, sunflowers. There is no traditional way of commercialising these products. This would be an interesting approach in 5 or 10 years, when they become independent of international assistance. There is a potential. But please pick up the farmers where they are standing at the moment. Right now, they are asking assistance in terms of better access to health service, drinking water, etc. And then we can assist them into making their lives better. But the only thing to do right now it to go there and identify the gaps in their livelihood systems, and help fix them.

No matter the type of crop? No matter if it is poppy that is grown, the gaps must also be filled?

Yes, exactly. I have already explained the benefits of improving irrigation systems. Let’s base our work on the existing know-how; it is not a solution for all, but for the majority, not for the next 50 years, but short-term. And there are a lot of examples of positive impact within the international assistance working on civil reconstruction in Afghanistan.

What is your implication in this forum (see note)? What would you like to see coming out of it?

My personal expectation is to understand better the situation of the coca farmers in South America. Coca has so many traditional uses, in food, in medicines. With opium, it is not the same. I am a little bit astonished that in this Forum there are no Afghanistan participants, so during the workshops I am trying to explain the situation of Afghanistan’s farmers. I’m here to learn 51%, and 49% to share my experience.

Palabras claves

opio, agricultura ilícita, geopolítica de la droga, producción de droga, droga, droga y violencia

, Afganistán


Foro Mundial de Productores de Cultivos Declarados Ilícitos


Interview realised during the Ist Global Forum of Producers of Crops declared to be Illegal, Barcelona, 29-31 January 2009.



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