Last year, this one remote province in southern Afghanistan furnished nearly half the world's opium and its major derivative, heroin.
An average farmer can earn over $4,000 dollars per hectare for poppy, while the yield for pomegranate is barely one-tenth of that. Added to that are the problems of markets and storage.
But farmers like Abdul Jabbar say that they would prefer fruit to opium, if only the government would provide storage facilities and help them develop markets. The government, in turn, insists that farmers are not asking for help but are rushing to cut down their trees to make way for poppy.
While exact figures are difficult to come by, Helmand farmers say that the majority of the province's pomegranate orchards have been destroyed in the past few years.
This corresponds inversely to the astronomical rise in opium production over the same period.
The amount of land given over to poppy in Helmand has nearly quadrupled in the past two years, rising from some 27,000 hectares in 2005 to 103,000 in 2007, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Runaway poppy production has been fuelled by the growth of the Taleban presence, which has made control all but impossible. Widespread corruption among government officials has contributed to the failure of a loudly-trumpeted crop eradication effort, and leads to a disdain for the law among citizens of the province.
Expensive alternative livelihood projects have mostly failed, in part because of the same factors, the insurgency and corruption.
Opium is easier to store and sell than almost any other commodity, insist Helmand's farmers.
"I used to have 300 pomegranate trees, now I have just 20. The rest of my land is being used for poppy," said Jahan Gir Aka, a farmer in Babaji district.
There was simply no market for the fruit, he said. "I believe that if the government could find us markets at a national and international level, all of Helmand's farmers would go back to growing pomegranates," he added.
Another problem is the absence of adequate storage facilities for pomegranates, which are perishable.
Naseem Kharotai has a shop in Bolan, near Lashkar Gah, and has 500 kilograms of pomegranates to sell.
"If I don't sell them soon, they will rot," he said. "If we had cold storage, we could earn a good income on pomegranates. They aren't very expensive right now, but if we had storage facilities we could sell them at a higher price in winter."
Pomegranates keep well when stored properly, he said.
In neighboring Kandahar, where the United States Agency for International Development has helped provide cold storage and quality control, earnings on pomegranates have nearly doubled.
But security problems have held back development in Helmand, and farmers complain that the government has been slow to provide assistance. For their part, officials say the farmers are not asking for help.
"Not a single farmer has come to us to ask for help in finding markets of building storage facilities," said Engineer Ghulam Nabi, the head of the department of agriculture in Helmand.
Even if they did, the government has limited resources, he admitted.
"If the farmers come to us to demand markets and storage facilities, we might be able to do something for them," he said. "We don't have the capacity to do it on our own, but we could seek assistance from donor organizations. The important thing is that the farmers should come to us."
The internationally funded counter-narcotics program, which in the past few years has pumped well over $100 million into alternative livelihood programs in Helmand, might be able to help.
But Engineer Abdul Manan, head of Helmand's counter-narcotics department, said that it was not the job of his office to help farmers with other crops.
"No one has come to us to ask for such services," he said. "If they do, we can send them to the department of rural development. But we do hope that farmers will turn to other crops than poppy for their livelihood."
It will take more than hope, however.
Nano Aka, a farmer in the Nawzad district, is against growing opium poppy. But he too cultivates the crop because, even with the risk of eradication, harvesting wages, tithes to local mullahs and bribes for the government, it brings him more income.
"I really don't like poppy," he said. "No one would grow it apart from the fact that it brings in money. Me, I like cultivating pomegranates."
Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission
This article originally appeared in the Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net. Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand
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