For years, both the Afghan government and the international community have been struggling to get farmers in Southwestern part of the country to stop the production of opium.
A recent effort, conducted by the Afghan government and financed by the international community that encouraged growers to abandon their poppy crops in favor of cotton appeared to be meeting with some success.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the number of acres being used to grow poppies declined seven per cent between 2010 and 2011, a significant drop in the province known as the largest heroin-producing region in the world.
However, farmers in the Helmand region are now threatening to go back to growing poppies because the Afghan government has not helped them market the alternative crops it encouraged them to grow.
Farmers like Mohammad Jan, from the Marja district, say they are not selling enough to make a living these days.
“I haven't grown poppy for the past two years; I've grown cotton instead,” he said. “But I failed to feed my family. I've been disappointed this year, too, because there's no market for cotton. The government won't buy it from us, and the price the traders pay isn't profitable for us.”
The head of counter-narcotics in Helmand, Abdul Qader Zahir, appeared unsympathetic to the farmers' plight. He warned that opium production was illegal whatever the economic circumstances, and would not be tolerated. “If there is no market for the farmers' cotton, that does not mean they can grow poppy,” he said.
But it's not just the low demand for their cotton that is forcing farmers to reconsider growing an illegal crop. The average price of opium has soared in recent months, climbing from $98 a kilo in 2010 to $274 in 2011.