Afghan farmers find alternative to opium

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BALKH, Afghanistan, Sept 27 (Reuters) As Afghanistan struggles to cut its raging opium production, aid workers try to find alternative crops, but for some former poppy farmers the choice was easy -- they planted marijuana instead.

Afghanistan's opium crop topped all records this year, producing some 93 per cent of the world's supply of the drug.

But while there has been a sharp rise in poppy production in the troubled south, the drug crop has been eliminated in a growing number of provinces in the safer north of the country.

Balkh province in the north was trumpeted as a success story -- from 7,000 hectares of poppies cultivated in 2006, it was declared opium-free in 2007 after strong local government action.

But around the ancient citadel of Balkh, in fields where pink poppy flowers stood last year, jagged green marijuana stalks poke above other crops and in places whole cannabis fields produce a pungent aroma strong enough to be picked by passing motorists.

The farmers are still cautious. ''They are not my fields,'' said Shamseddin, surrounded by head-high cannabis plants in full flower.

''I don't know who they belong to,'' he said, dropping a sickle to the ground and nudging it away with his foot.

Others said they only planted marijuana to shield their cotton fields from livestock or that it was just a trial crop.

LACK OF FUNDS ''The landlords used to plant poppy, but then the government came along and destroyed the crops,'' said farm worker Mohammad Yassin.

''This year we planted marijuana, the dealers will come and buy the crop from us, so we'll see what we make from it. We probably won't plant any next year.'' Marijuana, while not as profitable as opium, still makes more money than other legal crops.

''In order to survive and feed their families, the farmers have to cultivate marijuana,'' said Balkh drug squad chief Faiz Mohammad.

''Other crops don't give a good profit.'' Last month the United States unveiled a carrot-and-stick strategy to combat opium production. It plans to spend 25 million dollars to 50 million dollars in the next fiscal year to reward provinces that make significant progress against drugs.

The governor of Balkh, a former warlord, was credited for much of the success in eliminating opium in his province, but has complained he has yet to receive the promised incentives for doing so, let alone any funds for cutting back cannabis crops.

''Every year the international community announces that it is spending millions of dollars on counter-narcotics but we haven't seen a dime of that money,'' the Institute of War and Peace Reporting quoted governor Mohammad Atta as saying.

Balkh drugs squad chief Faiz Mohammad said his officers had made a start in informing farmers they should not plant cannabis and had requested funding from the national and local government to destroyed marijuana fields, but it had yet to arrive.

REUTERS SS KN1648

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