CHAM KALAI, Afghanistan – The seeds flew from his hands into the soil. Wrapped in a woolen shawl against the cold, Khan Bacha sowed his fields with the only crop he says brings him enough money to pay his bills and feed his family: poppies.
Afghanistan's farmers are rushing to replant their fields with the base ingredient of opium after the country reaped its biggest poppy harvest in May. That harvest produced a staggering 6,000 tons of opium, 49 percent more than the previous year and more than the combined output of the rest of the world, according to a report issued Wednesday by the United Nations' drug control agency.
Bacha's village, Cham Kalai, is in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which saw a dramatic fivefold increase in the area planted with poppies from 2012 to 2013, the country's biggest increase. The province also illustrates all the factors fueling the increase and thwarting efforts by Afghan officials and their U.S. allies to eradicate the crop. Poverty is widespread, making the lucrative poppy crop a draw. Instability is high, making any attempt to control planting impossible.
In Bacha's village of traditional sun-baked mud houses, there's no electricity, no running water. There isn't a health clinic for miles. Schools for girls are shunned as being against Islam.
"People are poor, families are big. Wheat is no good," Bacha said. "The only thing that is good is poppies. They are gold."
The area is also a stronghold for Taliban insurgents. Talk of security in the area just makes Bacha smile. Squatting on the edge of his small plot of land, he gestures off in the distance where he said that just the night before the Taliban fought a fierce battle with Afghan troops backed by "foreign soldiers" — his reference to NATO troops.
More than 1 million Afghans are addicts, living in squalor in its cities. In Kabul, the capital, they sleep on the street, in a garbage-filled dried riverbed reeking of human waste. The U.N. report said Afghanistan has increased its services to treat addicts, but caregivers say they are overwhelmed.
The poppy planting season in Afghanistan began last month and lasts until the end of November. Last season, which ended with the May harvest, brought grim milestones: Not only was production at its highest level, more land than ever before was cultivated with poppies — some 516,000 acres, 36 percent more than the previous season, according to a U.N. drug survey.
Cultivation spread to two provinces that had been declared poppy-free. The vast majority of cultivation — 89 percent — took place in nine provinces that are among the most insecure areas in the country, the report said.
That is bad news for the country as well as for Europe, the main recipient of Afghanistan's harvest, said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the U.N. drug agency's representative in Kabul.
A frustrated Lemahieu said the international community spent billions of dollars of development money on roads and irrigation projects without getting Afghans to stop growing poppies.
Taliban taxes the crops
They were more interested in winning "hearts and minds," he said. As a result, they were effectively saying, "Love us. … We are here to help you, and at the same time you plant your opium and I will look in the other direction," Lemahieu said.
Moreover, U.S. and NATO troops partnered with Afghan security contractors and government officials who were involved in the drug trade, he added. "Everybody who is powerful" benefits from the opium industry, Lemahieu said. "They can be found on [both] sides of the equation, be they insurgents or the local power brokers sitting within Parliament."
Bacha, the farmer, said the Taliban makes its money by charging farmers a "religious tax" of 1 kilogram — 2.2 pounds — of opium for every 10 kilograms produced — but the price is "negotiable."
"They say we are going for jihad," he said. "It is the money we give for God."
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar successfully banned poppy planting in 2000 when the group ruled Afghanistan, according to the United Nations at the time. Poppy production went from more than 4,000 tons to barely a few pounds, the U.N. said.
When the Taliban was ousted in December 2001, farmers ripped up their wheat — which they said often rotted in the field because there were so few roads to get it to market — and planted poppies.
"Mullah Omar's decree was a decree, but [Afghan President] Hamid Karzai's decrees are nothing," Bacha said. Now, he says there's no danger of the government destroying poppy crops, so "the farmers are relaxed."
Like last season, Bacha is planting his entire small plot of land with poppies. Last season, he earned around $1,200 — well above the country's average income of around $800 a year.
His neighbor is also busily sowing his meager piece of land with poppies.
"Our children are planting poppies," the neighbor said. "Even my wife and my mother are planting so we can finish by the end of the month."