'If they destroy our opium crop, how will we feed our family?'

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The Independent Online

It is a common enough sight in Helmand, but what adds piquancy to this particular vista is that Mr Munaf is the mayor of Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital, and his government is sending 1,500 troops to eradicate these and other opium poppy fields to curb Afghanistan's drug trade.

There is growing anger among farmers in Helmand at the imminent destruction of their crops and, with it, their livelihoods. And some of this backlash is likely to be directed at British troops who have begun deploying in this area.

"Why shouldn't people be angry? For three years the government has said they will compensate us for cutting our crop, but they have given nothing," said 77-year-old Agha Nour, the mayor's cousin, patriarch of the hundred-strong extended family, and poppy farmer.

"We are not rich people and we must fight to protect our crop. We have fought the army and police in the past and if the British come with them then we will fight them too. We have had this land for 40 years. If we cannot sell our crop we shall have to lose this land to pay for everything else."

The British commanders in Helmand have gone to great lengths to stress that their troops will play no part in the highly controversial eradication scheme. Privately, they express grave concern that the British will be identified with Afghan forces, and fear the detrimental effect this will have on operations in this dangerous region.

President Hamid Karzai is under intense pressure from the US and Britain to abort his country's cultivation of opium crop, the largest in the world and the primary source of heroin in Europe and America.

Helmand, producing 25 per cent of the crop and focus of international attention, appears to have been chosen for a public show of toughness.

"My cousin may be the mayor but he says there is nothing he can do because the decision has been taken in Kabul," said Mr Nour. "But all they are going to do is to hurt the small farmers. The big landlords will not be affected, they have too much money and too much influence in Kabul. How will we feed our family?"

Simple figures show why poppy farming is so attractive to Afghan farmers. Mr Nour also cultivates wheat, fruit and alfalfa in his two-hectare farm. But, while he gets 50 afghanis (just over $1) for 4kg of wheat, the price for the same amount of opium poppy is $500.

The farmers say it is also extremely difficult to grow crops other than the hardy poppy plant on the salty earth of their home, which is reclaimed from the desert. The cost of irrigation for other crops is frequently exorbitant.

"If Karzai really wants to stop opium production he should start with the involvement of government officials," said a Western aid worker in Helmand.

There are those only too eager to exploit the dissatisfaction of the farmers. Helmand and much of southern Afghanistan is seeing a resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida.