Distress in the Opium Bazaar: Can't Make a Profit

Distress in the Opium Bazaar: Can't Make a Profit
Posted by FoM on March 03, 2000 at 21:10:49 PT
By Barry Bearak
Source: New York Times
The merchants at the big opium bazaar here are crying the blues, what with sales so low and prices down by half. Abdul Wahab picked up a few chunks of his unrefined goods, which look like dried-up cow pies. He put the opium on his scale and measured the weight with lead balances. A year ago he was getting $140 per kilogram (2.2 pounds); now he gets $62. 
"We can't make a profit at these prices," he complained, just before closing his shop for noontime prayers. "What am I supposed to do for money? Rob people?" The problem is the ruling Taliban, who finally seem to be putting limits on the drug trade. They have much to accomplish. In 1999 Afghanistan's crop of raw opium amounted to a record 5,070 tons -- about 75 percent of the global yield. In Ghani Khel, where opium is sold as openly as onions, the traders grumble about a crackdown on their best customers, the nearby laboratories that make the drug into morphine and heroin. "With the labs dismantled, there are no buyers," Mr. Wahab said. While that is an overstatement, business in this dusty, decrepit bazaar of two dozen shops and one main street has certainly slumped. Store roofs are made of straw and look ready to cave in. Donkeys prowl about. One long-dead dog was lying near a vegetable seller's pushcart. Flies fluttered in crazed loops above its carcass. However modest in looks, this bazaar has long been a commercial hub for the surrounding provinces, where beautiful pink and white poppies flourish. Ghani Khel is about 20 miles from the city of Jalalabad, just a few hours' drive from the Khyber Pass. Decades back, this opium market was built at a discreet distance from any paved road -- a precaution largely unneeded during most of Afghanistan's freewheeling history. Mr. Wahab, 45, wears a large blue turban made more vivid by his long white beard. He is what some might call a wholesaler. Farmers sell him the gummy opium they milk from the swollen poppy pods. He in turn sells the dried-out drug to people with the means to refine it. While Mr. Wahab is considered prosperous in Ghani Khel, the biggest money in the opium trade is made by distributors far closer to the retail end. Mr. Wahab's shop, like most others, is a room barely 10 feet square. He keeps the sample cakes of opium in a small heap near a tea kettle. His money is stashed in an ammunition box. There are no lights. The floor is covered with a threadbare rug, the walls with bright cloths. On a recent Sunday he was bored. He said he had not sold a thing all day. A friend, Syed Nabi, strolled by. He makes money as a broker, steering farmers to the merchants. "The Taliban have been checking the trafficking routes," he said indignantly. "With opium you're O.K. But with heroin a few people have been arrested." This is a nasty turn for those whose livelihoods depend on poppies. Afghanistan has endured 21 straight years of war. Irrigation canals have been destroyed, and the soil has been booby-trapped with land mines. Farmers don't have much going for them. "We do understand that the Taliban have a dilemma," said Bernard Frahi, head of the United Nations Drug Control Program in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "They can't institute a full-fledged eradication program. They tell us that'd lead to a revolt." Indeed, the Taliban have done nothing so drastic as to outlaw drugs, despite condemning them as anathema to the sacred teachings of Islam. But they have sporadically shut down processing labs and made a show of burning heroin in bonfires. Their most important action against drugs came in September. After insistent pleading from the United Nations, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, ordered farmers to cut poppy cultivation by a third. The spring harvest will tell the tale, but early reports indicate that at least in some regions the militia have enforced the decree. Mullah Omar, a pious Muslim with one eye and three wives, has issued similar commands before, but these went by the wayside. The man is under conflicting pressures. The Taliban began conquering territory in 1994, but 10 percent to 20 percent of the country remains outside their control. A crusade against drugs would be unpopular. Poppies fill many pockets, especially those of local warlords with more than a passing interest in the trade. At the same time, the Taliban themselves have enjoyed millions from the opium business, taxing the lucrative poppy harvest the same way they do other crops and collecting a second assessment as the drugs are transported.. The United Nations does not recognize the Taliban, but on the poppy issue the Taliban's supreme leader seems to be issuing a challenge: put up or shut up. After reducing poppy cultivation, "we will look to the reaction of the world community," read Mullah Omar's September decree. If other nations provide "economic assistance in lieu of this opium," the campaign against the poppy will continue. As Mr. Frahi of the United Nations cautiously said: "We live in a difficult reality. If we're to succeed, we have to address the problem of poverty in Afghanistan in a systematic way. For that, we need funding and donor support, and most of the world wants nothing to do with the Taliban." The ins and outs of global politics are lost on the average poppy farmer. Near Ghani Khel, green sprouts have busted through the ground and reach toward the sun. People are desperately poor. Earnings from poppies are threefold those from wheat. Some farmers have no choice but to plant poppies. They live in debt and need to borrow to make it from year to year. Lenders demand that they plant the more profitable crop. "Yes, I know what I grow is poison to other people," said a sharecropper who uses the single name Khalil. He pointed into the distance. "I can't get a loan unless I do what those men tell me, the ones who live in the good houses with the big gates." Such contrition is uncommon, however. After all, this is Ghani Khel. Poppy-growing has been part of the culture for generations. "This is what my ancestors planted," said Khyber Gul, 28, standing in a pasture with his little son. "This boy will plant it, too." Mr. Gul has not obeyed Mullah Omar's decree -- and he had some advice for the Taliban: "If they want to destroy my poppies, they can. But if this is what they do to people, I promise one thing. They won't be around forever." Ghani Khel Journal, Afghanistan Published: March 3, 2000Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company Afghan Heroin Feeds Addiction in Region, U.N. Report Declares Articles:The Holy Men of Heroin Faces Staggering Wave of Asian Opium
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Comment #2 posted by Pete on March 04, 2000 at 04:59:22 PT
UN Policy
I dare say Harry Anslinger had something to do with it, certainly from an idealogical perspective.
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Comment #1 posted by Symmetric on March 03, 2000 at 22:51:48 PT:
>from the opium business, taxing the lucrative poppy >harvest the same way they do other crops and collecting a >second assessment as the drugs are transported.. Imagine that, another country doing with one of their indigenous drug crops the same thing as usa and canada do with the tobacco plant. The sagacity!I hate to think of my portion of tax dollar that goes to the un so they can bribe other countries basically not to do the same thing we are doing with tobacco.Does anyone know how the UN got involved in this whole mess in the first place? Who came up with the "UN Drug Control Program"?
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