Back to the Land

June 7, 2007

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.   soldiers2.jpg

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.


One comment

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Keep in mind that Sanguine, unlike central Helmand (Nad-i-Ali, Marja, Nawa)has always grown poppy…under the King, Daoud, the communists, Taliban and now, and they have the smallest average landholdings in the province.It (central Helmand) is one of the most studied regions in Afghanistan if not the world as the US had a presence in the area between 1946 and 1979.But the people trying to “help” the region dont seem to know that. Central Helmand did not cultivate poppy until the Soviet occupation but were and are double cropping cash crop farmers that used to depend on cotton, wheat, melon, vegetables and more recently peanuts. But through our bungling since 2002 we have been unable to help them to return to their traditional cash crops which they prefer…if you ask them. But I am not talking about the areas like Sanguine. That is a different problem and all the roads and irrigation systems etc that we promise would not change much and the farmers know that. Interested in more info? I have been associated with Helmand since 1971 including helping to start up 3 projects since 2002.

Posted by Dick Scott | Report as abusive