LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan Sept.24, 2009 -- In a few days, Suraj Uldin will plant his family's small farm with either poppy or wheat. The choice is stressing him out.
The Taliban is offering him a good deal to plant poppies. The U.S. is trying to get farmers to plant anything but poppies.
For the past two years, wheat prices have been unusually high, the result of a worldwide increase in basic food commodities as well as a drought in Afghanistan. If wheat prices remain inflated, Uldin prefers to grow it. For one thing, he says, it's far easier than raising poppy.
"Everything in poppy is hard," he said through an interpreter.
Uldin will have to make up his mind soon because planting season for the poppy crop will begin shortly.
The 54-year-old's decision is primarily based on how best to support his family of 10, but his choice is also an indication as to whether the United States' $1 billion commitment to agriculture in Afghanistan is making a difference in the lives of Afghans and in curbing the narcotics trade.
With the Obama administration's recent decision to stop the controversial poppy eradication program, the U.S. has put more emphasis on creating alternatives to growing poppy, the plant used in opium production and has been a key element in financing the Taliban.
Around the country, farmers are being encouraged by the U.S. to recreate the flourishing pre-Soviet invasion agricultural hub of vineyards and orchards for which the country was known.
For nearly 30 years, Uldin has worked his plot of land here in the heart of the world's poppy-growing region. Nearly half of Afghanistan's poppy comes from the fertile Helmand province and nearly all of the world's opium, 93 percent in 2008, comes from this war torn country.
Despite his dislike for the physical struggles of growing poppy and the fact that it is considered Haram or "forbidden" in this Islamic nation, Uldin usually plants it. Poppy offers a consistently high price which helps his family, plus he feels pressure from the Taliban.
"Local traders or smugglers, they were offering us money. They say, 'Keep this money and you will eat for your family okay?'" he explained. "I will give you this much money and I will buy your harvest at this high price."
Despite Taliban War, Goal Is to Recreate Afghans' Orchards, Vineyards
In the rugged sometimes lunar-looking landscape of Afghanistan, the lack of roads and infrastructure makes it easy for Taliban and narcotics traders to control the agricultural economy: they come and collect the poppy so the farmers don't have to find a way to get it to a market.
Helmand is considered to be one of the most dangerous places on earth. Since the Marine surge here in early July – the largest Marine air assault since the Vietnam War - the summer has become one of the deadliest in the war.
However the situation for locals is not as bad as it seems, says Rory Donohoe who runs the U.S. Agency for International Development program here.
"There's a misunderstanding about violence in the major urban centers in Helmand," said Donohoe. "Business is booming. There's an ice cream factory. There's a lot of stuff going on here. There's a lot of violence, but it's not hindering business."
Donohoe is working with local governments to create a stable marketplace for crops other than poppies. This is done in part by providing support such as free or reduced-rate seeds and fixing irrigation systems, as well as ensuring opportunities for the diversification of agriculture such as growing wheat, alfalfa, barley, tree crops and vineyards.
"Our goal is to have no poppy produced in Helmand. It's a poison," said Donohoe. "It's not only my goal, more importantly, it's the governor of Helmand's goal."
So far the programs appear to be working. Last year 35,000 farmers, or about 30 percent of Helmand's families, grew wheat instead of poppy. This year, they expect about 40,000 to 45,000 will to grow wheat or tree fruits.
As important as the poppy reduction is, USAID's overall goal is to create more choices for farmers. USAID's $1 billion budget includes funding for agricultural projects, biodiversity and watershed management as well as alternative livelihood programs which even include opportunities for women to become certified in midwifery.
"What we're trying to do is to get farmers to get out of the cycle of thinking of 'Do I grow poppy this year or do I grow wheat?'" said Kim Lucas, USAID deputy director in the office of agriculture. "But instead to get them back to the tree and the trellis idea of growing the basics such as grapes, pomegranates, pistachios, almonds, apricots – the high-value fruits and nuts for which Afghanistan had been famous for thousands of years."
Soviet Army Devastated Afghan Agriculture
During the invasion by the Soviets, soldiers cut down trees during fighting, plus Afghans used the trees for fuel during the freezing winters. As a result, the physical landscape of the country has changed dramatically, something noted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Senate Appropriations Hearing in April.
"I've seen pictures from, you know, 40, 50 years ago, and it's just unrecognizable. Anybody who's flown over Afghanistan now and seen the erosion and the dust and the lack of arable land. It was a surprising contrast," said Clinton.
Along with replanting the orchards, vineyards and woodlots, Lucas said aid programs will also focus on watershed rehabilitations to the help replace lost aquifers.
"If there's one thing I would tell people to do, it's plant trees and pay people to protect them for the next few years," said Lucas.