MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - With heavy fighting in the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah now largely reduced to sporadic gunfights, U.S. Marines in the area have turned their focus toward eliminating the insurgents' cash source: opium.
But instead of eradicating the illicit poppy fields themselves, the Marines have begun piloting a new method over the past week -- paying farmers cash to destroy their own crops.
In February, thousands of U.S. Marines pushed into Marjah, an insurgent enclave in southern Helmand province. Weeks of intense fighting ensued as militants wrestled to hold on to a vital area where for years they had virtual free reign.
What makes Marjah so important is its strategic location. Lying just west of the provincial capital and surrounded by lush farmland crisscrossed by canals that water the opium poppy crop, it has become a hub for the narcotics trade in central Helmand.
Last year, Afghanistan produced 90 percent of the world's opium, the raw ingredient of heroin, with some 60 percent grown in Helmand alone. The Taliban are said to siphon off hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the trade of the drug.
Now, with harvest time only a few weeks away and up to 60,000 migrant workers expected to flow into Helmand to work the poppy fields, the Marines have launched a new scheme in Marjah where farmers are paid to plough their own fields under.
"We've come up with this program, it's a completely voluntary program, that's the most important aspect. I'm not going to touch their poppy," said Major Jim Coffman, a Marine civil affairs officer who oversees the new project.
"If they choose to destroy or to clear ... their fields, we will give them $300 (per hectare)," he said.
Under the scheme, started just over a week ago, farmers enroll at one of the Marine outposts and are given a week to plough their fields. Once the empty fields are checked, farmers are paid and given fertilizer and seeds for alternative crops.
"So far it's been a pretty good reaction, a tempered reaction," said Coffman.
"We've seen about eight to ten guys here today. We're over 1,000 jeribs total just for our site here," he said, referring to the traditional unit of land measurement in Afghanistan equal to one fifth of a hectare.
PAYING FOR LAND, NOT DRUGS
The scheme marks a wider shift in policy by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, away from forced poppy eradication which officials said only ended up hurting impoverished farmers. Eradication has largely been seen as a failure by the West.
According to the United Nations, less than 4 percent of poppy planted in Afghanistan over the last two years was eradicated, and at a great human and economic cost. Military commanders say it also drives farmers to join the insurgency.
The scheme in Marjah has caused some controversy though, with critics saying it amounts to buying drugs off the farmers with U.S. taxpayers' money. Coffman disagreed.
"The American government is not in the habit or process of paying anybody for drugs, so that's not what we're here for. It is an agricultural transition program," Coffman said.
"I'm really essentially paying money for the land not for the crop. So if they have wheat or cotton or poppy or anything else on their land, if they choose to destroy it, then they'll get the money ... they'll get the fertilizer and the seed," he said.
Coffman stressed the scheme was a one-off and that next year farmers would "not be allowed" to grow poppy, but did not say what would happen if farmers did revert to the illicit crop.
The Marines acknowledge the money they are paying the farmers per hectare is considerably less than they would get for selling the drug, but with troops allowed to seize the poppy once it is harvested, some farmers are cutting their losses.
"This is a very good program. I am sure this will succeed," said one farmer, Gulabuddin Khan.
Other farmers who trickled in to enroll for the scheme at Combat Outpost Hanson over the weekend, shied away from journalists, a sign of the Taliban's still influential presence in the area. A baker in a nearby village was recently beheaded by insurgents for selling bread to Afghan soldiers.
But despite the modest turnout since launching the scheme, Coffman remains optimistic.
"This whole society is based on word of mouth and I guarantee you, once the first group, once they clear the land, they get their money, they get their fertilizers and seed, this place will be inundated with folks," he said.