Archive for Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Kansan eyes poppy alternatives for Afghans

September 4, 2002

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— Being an agricultural consultant means something very different in Afghanistan, where Tom Brown of Wichita works.

There, Brown tries to get Afghan farmers to grow a crop more benign than their current mainstay, the opium poppy.

Per acre, poppies still rake in more than 10 times as much money as other crops, even after factoring in government payments for farmers not to grow poppies. Afghanistan, which in the past has supplied three-quarters of the world's opium, could see a record poppy crop this year, according to a United Nations report released last month.

Brown, 42, is a Kansas native and Kansas State University graduate. He had been living and working in neighboring Pakistan for 10 years with his wife, Gina, a Wichita native. They came back to Kansas with their three children shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks made things "dicey" for foreigners, he said. He has been to Afghanistan twice, for a total of 10 weeks, since a U.S.-backed military drive deposed the Taliban there last year.

In that time Afghanistan has seen progress and chaos. With violence still common and rural areas gripped in drought, many farmers are once again producing opium, a lucrative crop slowed, though never stopped, by the Taliban, who benefited from taxing its production.

The current government, led by pro-American Hamid Karzai, condemns the trade but is too weak to stop it.

From a farmer's standpoint, growing poppies makes good business sense, especially when drought makes other crops difficult to grow, Brown said.

His job with the Central Asia Development Group, a newly formed nongovernmental organization, is to show farmers that other crops, such as peas, lentils and cotton, are preferable to poppies. Farmers can be persuaded when given the right incentives, he said.

"The opium buyers are the only people encouraging these farmers to grow anything," he said. His organization offers contracts and assistance to farmers who want to grow other crops.

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