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Higher pay rates for poppy workers in volatile south

[Afghanistan] Opium harvest.
Opium production remains a major concern in Afghanistan (UNODC)

Standing in the middle of a large field, Khair Mohammad, 27, uses a sharp razor to lance chest-high poppy plants in the outskirts of Lashkargah, the provincial capital of the southern Afghan province of Helmand.

Lancing should take place in the afternoons in order to sun-block the seeping opiate from drying up quickly. Early the following morning workers hang plastic bags from their necks and collect raw opiate either with the same razor or their fingers.

Mohammad earns about US$15 a day for 12 hours onerous work under a scorching sun. “This is a lot of money,” the young poppy harvester said, “I will work hard for one month and my family will be better off for months”.

Mohammad said he came to work in volatile Helmand from his native Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan, because he could not find a job there. “Thousands of men have come from Ghazni and other provinces to work in Helmand and neighbouring areas where poppy is cultivated on a large scale,” another harvester, Rozi Gul, told IRIN in Lashkargah.

More on opium in Afghanistan
 Fighting a losing battle against opium production
 Girls and women traded for opium debts
  Opium abuse video

 This video short looks at opium abuse among women and children in north-eastern Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of illicit opium

[Duration: 01:30]

In 2006, over 2 million people worked in poppy fields throughout Afghanistan, according to the UN. Provincial officials in Helmand province say thousands of workers also come from neighbouring Pakistan to work in the poppy fields.

Like it or not Afghanistan’s poppy fields have regional and global economic implications,” said a government official who declined to be identified.

Higher pay rates

In Helmand and its neighbouring provinces farmers have cultivated more poppy than ever before, but growing insecurity has affected the poppy job market in the region.

“People [labourers] fear to come to Helmand because of the conflict. That is why we are paying higher rates than last year,” said Khair Mohammad, a poppy farmer in Helmand.

“In Nangarhar and other relatively calm provinces a poppy labourer is paid about 400 Afghanis [$8 per day] while in Helmand it is double [that figure],” said Shirish Ravan, an official with the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) in Afghanistan.

Production rising

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin, according to the UNODC, and Helmand alone produces over 35 percent of the country’s opium.

According to UNODC statistics, in 2006 Afghanistan produced a record 6,100 tonnes of opium and grew poppies on 165,000 hectares of land - an area roughly the same size as two-thirds of Luxemburg.

The UN’s drug agency estimates the country will produce more opium in 2007 than it did last year.

''People [labourers] fear to come to Helmand because of the conflict. That is why we are paying higher rates than last year''

Of the $3.1 billion that Afghanistan’s opium industry produced last year, only 24 percent reached Afghans including local farmers, labourers and traders, the Afghan government said. The bulk of the country’s illicit capital goes to regional and global smuggling networks that have multifaceted relations with organised crime and “terrorist” groups, analysts say.

Health risks

Back on the poppy fields, lancing-and-robbing is an arduous task, which requires a poppy field labourer to work half-bowed for hours. Many labourers complain about lumbago and pain in the legs.

Moreover, extensive exposure to raw opium pushes many labourers towards drug addiction, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) has found.

Some labourers use their fingers, instead of a flat razor, to collect raw opiates. It is common for harvesters to lick their fingers, a spokesman for MCN said.

Labourers also inhale a strong opiate odour during working hours which exacerbates their vulnerability to drug addiction. “I always feel dizzy while I work in the field,” a labourer admitted. Another worker said he started using opium regularly after he first worked on poppy fields for over a month in 2006.

It is unclear whether all poppy labourers realise the risks they are taking in their job, but Ravan from UNODC says: “If they had alternative opportunities, I don’t think they would do this intensive and risky job.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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