By Hamid Shalizi
SARACHA, Afghanistan, March 4, (Reuters) - Haji Anzurullah grew opium in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, but under pressure from the authorities he gave up the illegal crop and found a profitable alternative, fish breeding.
"I buy thousands of very small fish from Pakistan and rear them here. Once they are big enough, I sell them to fishmongers," said Anzurullah, who was trained in the fish farming business by a foreign aid organisation that helps villagers find alternative sources of income besides growing poppies.
Despite a 19 percent drop last year, Afghanistan still produces over 90 percent of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. Afghanistan’s drug trade is believed to inject some $3 billion a year into the Afghan economy and the proceeds help fund the Taliban.
Last year, Nangarhar province went from being the second biggest poppy growing province in the country to almost poppy free.
This is partly due to Nangarhar’s powerful governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, who has hinted at running in the Aug. 20 presidential election. Sherzai offers financial incentives to farmers in his provinces and assistance to choose alternative, legal forms of livelihoods, such as wheat farming or fish farming.
If farmers resist, their poppy crops are destroyed.
After the government razed his crop, Anzurullah, head of Saracha village on the outskirts of the provincial capital Jalalabad, turned his two poppy fields into fish ponds where he now rears more than 6,000 fish.
He pays just 1,000 afghanis ($20) for thousands of fish in Peshawar, just across the nearby border in Pakistan. He then grows them for about 10 months and sells them at a hefty profit.
Counter-narcotics experts say the key requirement to reduce opium cultivation is a strong government capable of carrying through disincentives that outweigh the considerable profits to be made from poppy farming.
Farmers also have to be persuaded that other crops can come close to providing a comparable income to opium.
"Economic and development assistance alone is not sufficient to defeat the narcotics trade in Afghanistan," said a U.S. government report on narcotics issued in February.
"Alternative development opportunities can and do yield reasonable incomes, but must also be backed by measures to increase risk to those who plant poppy, traffic in narcotics, and support cultivation and trafficking," it added.
DRUGS HELP INSURGENTS
Despite exhaustive counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, overall opium cultivation has grown dramatically since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
This is especially true in the south, where the Taliban has launched an intensified insurgency against U.S.-led NATO troops and government forces, financed with profits from opium, including from record poppy crops in 2006 and 2007.
"Nearly all significant cultivation now occurs in insecure areas with active insurgent elements," the U.S. report said.
The United Nations estimates that the Taliban and other anti-government forces made between $200 to $400 million in profits from drugs processing and trafficking in 2008 and about $50 to $70 million from ‘tax payments’ by opium farmers and those involved in the drug trade.
Opium production did drop slightly last year, but experts say that was probably more to do with the weather than any other factor.
The drug crop is expected to fall again this year, but factors such as the high wheat prices and a market glut of opium have a bigger influence on farmers than international efforts to convince growers to abandon the cash-crop.
"If the government helps generate fish farming and other means of lawful income in Jalalabad, 50 percent of jobless people will find jobs which can also help security," said Hussain Safai, head of Nangarhar province’s agriculture department.
New businesses such as fish farming are a good option in a land-locked country where many people, especially those living in more remote areas, rarely enjoy the taste of fish or seafood.
During Afghanistan’s 30 years of war, grenades were sometimes used to catch fish in rivers, but the explosives also destroyed the fish spawn and so few fish are found in the wild these days. Many rivers have also dried up due to years of drought.
On weekends, families make the three-hour trip from Kabul to a picnic spot just outside Jalalabad to eat at the dozens of stalls selling fried fish.
"I came here with my family to have fresh fish for lunch," said Jawed Sultani, a doctor from Kabul. "Fish is a favourite food for many Afghans."
Back on his fish farm, Anzurullah says he is pleased with the success of his new business.
"It is a good business and very profitable, but nothing can compare to the profit made from poppies," he said laughing. (Editing by Megan Goldin)