Some farmers trade poppy for wheat

Surkh Rod, January 24, 2005 - The top U.N. drug official is heading to Afghanistan to check out reports that farmers are heeding government calls for a "holy war" on the rampant drug trade by slashing opium cultivation.

Foreign and Afghan officials are forecasting a drop of between 30 percent and 70 percent in this year's crop, as once verdant expanses of poppies are being sown with wheat instead.

In eastern Nangarhar province and southern Helmand, poppy production could be down by more than three-quarters this year, the officials said, though reliable statistics are not yet available.

The reports suggest at least an initial response to H.E. President Hamid Karzai's campaign against the illegal Afghan narcotics industry, which last year supplied an estimated 87 percent of the world's opium, the raw material for heroin.

The drop in poppy cultivation is increasing pressure on the international community to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for impoverished Afghans who have survived until now by growing opium poppies, but are cooperating with authorities in switching to other crops.

"The first priority which we are supporting is self-restraint and self-eradication, and it is happening amazingly well," Rural Development Minister Haneef Atmar said. "The risks are now too high for (the farmers), and they hope the government will protect them and help them."