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Back to the Land
Before I joined Reuters I worked in Africa for a while, where I developed a strong sense of how geography shapes civilisation. The quality of land, access to water, distance from markets — all these can sow the seeds of conflict. Nowhere is a better example of this than Afghanistan, and I often try to throw a little geography lesson into my stories.
Afghanistan, and Helmand Province in particular, has some of the most extreme geography on the planet, and a quick helicopter flight over the area, like we had this morning, tells quite a tale.
The desert and mountains are utterly incapable of sustaining life. Except for the Helmand River itself and its scattered mountain tributaries, there is simply no water. All along the
river is an intensely fertile, heavily populated crescent where centuries ago the local Pashtun tribes carved immense networks of irrigation canals. Truly, these are wonders of engineering. The canals need to be constantly maintained in order to make the land arable, which is backbreaking and expensive labour. That means most people have access only to very small plots of usable land, and to survive they need to grow the crop that produces
the most value out of the smallest possible plots. That, of course, is opium. Other crops may be cheaper or easier to grow, and many people say they are opposed to opium on principle. But few other crops can produce enough income to feed a large family with only a tiny plot of fertile land.
The international community and the Afghan government, of course, are officially opposed to the opium trade, which is one of the why many locals, rightly or wrongly, have sought the protection of the Taliban. Lately the British have made a point of telling the locals that they are not here to interfere with the opium crop. But American contractors are helping to train an eradication force, and the signals from NATO are as loud as they are mixed. Winning back the trust of people who think you have come to destroy their livelihood will be hard, slow work.
I have just two acres of land and 20 people to feed. I have to grow poppies. Otherwise, I cannot feed my family! one of the elders shouted at the meeting I attended today. NATO, and the Afghan government it supports, have yet to give a simple answer.