CIDA looks to expand Afghan program swapping poppies for Cdn wheat
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In Afghanistan's war-scarred agrarian society, where farmers tend the land the same way generations of their predecessors did, change happens slowly - especially when it comes to the grassroots civilian effort to replace insurgents with resurgence.
The goal is to restore the "golden age" of farming that existed before the Russians invaded in 1979, with the help of more modern tools like irrigation and fertilizer, as well as lucrative, practical crops like wheat to replace the burgeoning poppy trade.
When the Canadian government offered 50-kilogram bags of high-quality Canadian wheat to about 6,000 Afghan farmers last year, only the most adventurous were willing to give it a try. For them, that pioneering spirit is beginning to pay off.
"They had a bumper crop last year," said Jean-Frederic Beauchesne, the economic growth officer for the Canadian International Development Agency, who is part of Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar city.
"I'm thrilled about it and I think it's a really good opportunity for farmers to basically get their feet up off the ground and also for us to look at more."
Wheat and other suitable cash crops, such as safflower, are considered key elements in an ongoing struggle to wean Afghanistan from its addiction to opium poppies. Afghanistan produces roughly 90 per cent of the world's opium, which is used to make heroin.
Advocates of growing wheat say they can earn as much as they would with poppies, with the added bonus of not having to worry about Taliban reprisals or the threat of having their crops destroyed by poppy eradication teams.
"The price of wheat and poppy are almost balancing each other, and if you cultivate poppy or instead cultivate wheat here, both give you the same money," farmer Haji Sultan said in an interview.
"Instead of poppy we should cultivate wheat - this is not forbidden."
But while production is down slightly across the country, opium production remains the single largest cash crop in Afghanistan, and by far the largest source of income for both the farmers and the warlords who buy it from them.
Convincing farmers to try a new crop is never easy, especially in a country so set in its ways.
"The fact is we don't understand if (wheat) is good or not, because we haven't used this before," said Din Mohammad, a farmer in the Daman district east of Kandahar city.
"We are the people who are expanding, and telling others this is good. In our community they just take two or three bags because they don't trust more."
So far, though, the experiment has been a success. Mohammad's first effort produced only 500 kg of wheat per 2,000 square metres of land, but his second planting more than doubled the harvest, he said.
The bumper crop, combined with wheat's strong, government-subsidized price, means those who have tried it already want more than just one bag this year. That's unlikely to happen anytime soon, although the program is being expanded, Beauchesne said.
"Instead of giving wheat seed distribution on a yearly basis, we're also trying to look at more sustainable wheat production options so that we don't have to do this every year."
The Canadian government produced about 350 metric tonnes of wheat last year for Afghan distribution through Mercy Corps, a non-government organization based in Portland, Ore., that provides aid in more than 30 countries around the world.
The tonnage is expected to increase to about 550 metric tonnes this year, nearly doubling to 11,000 the number of Afghan farmers who will get a chance to plant wheat instead of poppies, much of it in the fertile and volatile Arghandab River valley.
"This year we're pretty confident they'll be able to work in the entire Arghandab valley, which to me is very important," Beauchesne said.
"It is the bread belt. They have the entire green belt covered this year all along the river."
Beauchesne is particularly excited about another project in the Tarnak Farms area near Kandahar Airfield. Infamous these days as a former al-Qaida training camp where Osama bin Laden once lived, it was in its heyday a rich agricultural area.
Work is proceeding on turning the facility into an agricultural training institute which would allow farmers to come in to test out a variety of crops and experiment with new farming techniques, such as modern ways of drying grapes to make raisins.
The possibility of seconding a piece of land for growing high-grade wheat seed near the proposed institute is also in play, Beauchesne said.
"The original design is fairly modest, but it would require about 40 hectares and produce a few hundred metric tonnes to produce high quality wheat."
That proposal is in the hands of the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, he added.
By Bill Graveland (CP)
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