Afghan crop surveyors put their lives on the line
15 December 2010 - Afghanistan is the world's largest supplier of opium. Poppy fields dot the landscape, but these beautiful flowers are the raw material for the world's most dangerous drug, heroin.
Through the field office in Afghanistan, UNODC contributes to the collection and dissemination of authoritative data on nation-wide trends in Afghanistan, notably on opium poppy cultivation, cannabis cultivation and corruption.
UNODC, one of the foremost global sources of opium poppy cultivation data in Afghanistan, releases each year the annual Afghanistan Opium Survey thanks to a team of dedicated staff on the ground. Skilled surveyors go to opium poppy fields all over the country, painstakingly collecting data on the number of opium poppy crops in each field, the location of these fields and their plant cycles.
To get a glimpse into their arduous and hazardous work, we spoke to two Afghan crop surveyors, Abdul Basir Basirat (who started working with the office in 1997) and Sayed Ahmad Asmati (who joined UNODC in 2002). Abdul and Sayed are UNODC regional survey coordinators in Afghanistan for the Eastern and Southern zones respectively.
As survey coordinators, Abdul and Sayed supervise teams of crop surveyors, and coordinate the whole process from training to monitoring of surveyors in the fields. UNODC works closely with the Afghan Ministry for Counter Narcotics to train teams of surveyors, sends them to the field to collect raw data, and carries out random checks in villages to confirm what has been surveyed.
To collect data, surveyors use a variety of methods, including field assessments, interviews with village elders and farmers, segment and target surveys through satellite imagery using global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS). This time- and resource-consuming exercise take months to cover all affected provinces in Afghanistan.
This job comes with its risks. In 2008, one crop surveyor, Fasal Ahmad, died in an explosion in the eastern region, allegedly set up by the Taliban because of his work of collecting data on opium poppy fields.
"We go from village to village and speak to the elders and the farmers who cultivate poppy, who stopped cultivating poppy, as well as to those who never did", said Sayed.
For the most part, UNODC surveys are welcomed by the local population, the one exception being the poppy eradication survey. In 2005, the Afghan government started to eradicate poppy farms in the country, Abdul explained, "The poppy eradication policy received a hostile reaction from the farmers and it turned out to be a very dangerous enterprise for the teams involved."
"People have little agricultural land, and use it to grow opium poppy. They do this because of poverty, and since they spend money on growing the crop, they feel bad when their crops are cut down", explained Sayed.
"Nearly sixty people were killed in 2008 in relation to poppy field eradications", Sayed added. "Often, in the Hilmand region, surveyors discover landmines put out to target the eradication teams", said Adbul.
Despite these risks, Sayed and Adbul find their strength and will in their unshakeable faith and in the pursuit of truth. " I am happy with the job I do for UNODC because it allows me to transfer the truth to the world," said Sayed. "I am happy because we want to help people avoid drugs", he added. "Our fundamental law forbids the use of drugs. We face the danger knowing that our fate is in the hands of Allah," declared Abdul.
Other surveys they have been involved with include cannabis survey and corruption survey. A recent survey report shows that cannabis cultivation in Afghanistan is increasing year by year, with an increase in demand, and a high price of hashish. "Farmers don't get enough money from just one crop, hence they plant others", says Abdul.
Sayed highlighted the fact that international demand was an important factor of the current situation in Afghanistan, saying that if demand was reduced it would lower farmers' incentive to cultivate opium poppy or cannabis. They called for international support and aid, reminding us that Afghan farmers were pushed to cultivate narcotic substances due to their precarious livelihood.
"The world should not forget about Afghanistan", they concluded.