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The Prospects for Pakistan's Opium Farmers - Relief or Oppression?

A decade ago most American images of Southeast Asia were of the Vietnam war. A sidelight to the conflict was drugs - marijuana and heroin - both locally produced in the region known as the Golden Triangle. Today the Golden Crescent - Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - has overtaken the Triangle as the world's leading region of heroin production. As much of this heroin is smuggled to the West, countries including the United States have taken a keen interest in this problem and initiated efforts to stem the production and trafficking of the drug.

The Golden Crescent: Source of Heroin

Pakistan has become a key country for the heroin trade; it is not only a producer but a conduit as well. Up until recently opium and heroin were smuggled to the West from Iran and Afghanistan, two countries where production and processing as well as transshipment took place. But since 1979 these activities have been disrupted by the revolution in Iran and the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan has, to some extent, filled the gap - receiving their supplies to add to locally produced stocks. A small but increasing amount is consumed locally (authorities are concerned about a fast growing local addiction problem) but most supplies are smuggled out either directly or via India or Sri Lanka. A significant amount of heroin that reaches U.S. shores - between 40 and 60 percent, according to reliable sources - comes from the Golden Crescent, most of it from Pakistan.

The Gadoon-Amazai Project

In the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the US committed its third largest aid program worldwide - $3.2 billion of military and economic assistance from 1982-87 - to Pakistan. Included in the economic aid is a USAID-financed project - the Gadoon-Amazai Area Development Project (GAADP) - intended to reduce opium production by providing viable economic alternatives to poppy farmers in the Northwest Frontier Province. The project area is a mountain called Mahaban ("the great forest" in the local language) which is located about 50 miles west of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city. The mountain rises to 7,000 feet above sea level on the western shores of the 70-mile long, man-made lake that lies behind Tarbela Dam, the largest earth-filled dam in the world.

About 125,000 people live on Mahaban today - many more than one would normally expect to find living on such a mountain with its steep sides and meager soil. The reason is simple - opium poppy. The poppy requires intensive cultivation and its cash profitability is enormous. A poppy farmer with his annual produce can plan to earn ten times more money than he could with another cash crop such as tobacco or fruit.

Ethnic Composition/Social Values

Almost all of the residents of the mountain belong to one of the Pushtun tribes, the dominant ethnic group in the Northwest Frontier Province. The Pushtuns, about half of whom live in Afghanistan and the other half concentrated in Pakistan, comprise a confederacy of tribes whose historical origins are uncertain. One theory casts them as descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. They all trace their ancestry, however, to the sons of a putative figure and contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad, Qais bin Rashid.

On Mahaban most of the people belong to the Jadoon tribe. The other major tribe represented is the Yusafzai. In addition, there are some non-Pushtun minorities including such groups as the religious caste of Standards, who trace their lineage to the Prophet. There are also the Tonolis and the Gujars, both of whom claim central Asian origin. In fact, the Gujars, mostly herdsmen and sharecroppers today, are thought to be descendants of the White Huns of Genghis Khan fame.

Most of the people on the mountain are small landowners who grow mostly poppy; the average of cultivated land per holding is only half an acre. A few residents are engaged in petty trade, mostly essential provisions for others who live on Mahaban.

As the Pushtuns are the dominant group, their tribal code of behavior known as Pukhtunwali is widely followed in the area even by the non-Pushtun groups. This code is based on such concepts as revenge, hospitality, cousin rivalry and female honor, principles that must be upheld even at the cost of one's life. For example, cousin rivalry most often involves first cousins who are fathers' brothers' sons and is usually more intense than the analogous sibling rivalry phenomenon more common to American or western society.

Pukhtunwali still has considerable force among the residents of Mahaban but increasingly they are having to come to terms with alternate legal sanctions represented by the Islamic Shariat and government regulations as government functionaries project their authority into the region. This is one way in which social change is taking place in the area.

One of the most important values in Pushtun society is land ownership; an individual without land is of little consequence. This value helps explain, in part, the tenacity with which residents have held on to their land on Mahaban. The soil, though not very fertile, is suitable for poppy production and little else. Thus, aside from its economic value, the people grow poppy because it is one of the few crops that will flourish on their meager land.

Natural Resources

Land is the chief natural resource of the people of the mountain, but it has come under increasing pressure over time. The Pushtuns practice a custom of equal division of land among sons which has led to considerable fragmentation of land holdings. It has also spawned an out-migration by able-bodied males in pursuit of jobs; in recent years estimates indicate that one household in three has a working age male outside - roughly 15 percent of the labor force. These emigrants, who return to their homes with outlooks broadened by their experiences, are another vehicle of social change.

Generally the mountain represents a region of high population density with great pressure on relatively scarce supplies of such resources as land, water, range and forest. The socioeconomic customs of the area, including the division of landholding through inheritance and customary ownership of water by the one who is closest to the source have tended, traditionally, not to serve the best interests of most of the people of the area. These factors of scarce resources and vested interests have complicated the project's challenge to provide viable economic alternatives to the opium farmers of the region.

Poppy Production

Opium poppy has been grown on Mahaban for generations, at least since the 1800s when opium was a legal crop grown for export under British colonial rule. Its production and distribution has been banned only since 1979 when Pakistan's current military government passed the Hadd Ordinance, based on Islamic sanctions.

The chief obstacle to ending poppy production on Mahaban has not been the farmers themselves but the traders based in Gandaf, a town at the bottom of the mountain. These traders, called VIPs locally (for "vested interest persons"), are the middlemen between the growers and the large-scale smugglers and distributors based in such cities as Peshawar and Lahore. The traders are able to exercise some influence over the growers by providing credit. They also assist farmers with hospitality and advice during legal proceedings.

The project design team encountered many rumors about these traders; some were reputed to be well-armed and to have their own private militias - they reminded Italian contractors at Tarbela Dam of Sicilian mafiosi. Some of them had harassed Pakistani narcotics control officials, even killing a few. During the designing the team received reports - never directly but through the grapevine - that efforts to carry out the project would be obstructed.

The opposition of the Gandaf traders as well as the legacy of earlier failed attempts by the US and the West Germans to bring development to the mountain led to considerable delays for the project design team. Access to the mountain and to its people had to be secured if realistic project components were to be designed. A further factor that slowed the whole process was the caution exercised by the responsible Pakistani authorities, primarily the district executives, the ranking officials in the area. They did not wish to expose foreigners, in particular, to potentially dangerous situations.

A final potential factor was the role of high Pakistani officials. Rumors to this effect were never confirmed but stories did circulate that the Gandaf traders enjoyed protection that came from high levels of the government. If this is true, it parallels the situation in certain Latin American countries where high government officials such as ministers are known to be deeply involved in drug trafficking.

Project Approach

The Gadoon-Amazai Area Development Project represents a two-pronged approach: an integrated program of economic incentives and benefits (i.e. high-yield seeds, fertilizer, alternate cash crops like saffron, infrastructure, training, etc.) and government enforcement of regulations banning poppy cultivation. Attempts were made during the project designing to secure government assurances that it would not only enforce but do so in a manner that caused the least disruption possible to those in the project area.

Thus the project faces a considerable challenge: to provide greater economic returns than a crop with enormous, proven cash value and, by winning farmer support for project activities, to prevent their subjection to harsh enforcement measures. Such populations are at risk - they have no resources apart from what they gain from an illegal product and they could suffer great hardship were the government to destroy their fields and give them nothing in return. So far, that has not happened but it still could, for at least some of the people of Mahaban. The government is hesitant to carry out wide-scale enforcement hoping that local growers will switch to other non-poppy activities on their own.

Today the project is under implementation. Most of the residents of the area are cooperating with efforts to plant higher-yield wheat seed and to extend and upgrade the road into the area. Rural electrification schemes are being carried out, school buildings constructed, and a health facility upgraded. A training center is also under operation at Gandaf. Others, however, continue to resist project activities and this has, on occasion, brought government enforcement. The project continues along a fine line, balancing between ongoing project efforts and the overhanging threat of enforcement should residents give up and decide to persist with or return to opium production.


The project will further the social change that has already begun in the area and with this change will come political and economy change as well. A considerable amount of economic resources are to be made available to the residents of Gadoon-Amazai and at least some of these can be expected to improve their lives or, at least, change them in certain ways. Nonetheless, efforts must be made to see that the project does not fail to meet the needs of the residents, especially in the wake of enforcement efforts. In a nearby region the local people were angry and frustrated when a UN-financed project failed to deliver benefits after the government had destroyed poppy standing in the fields. Care must be taken to see that this experience is not repeated in the Gadoon-Amazai.

Furthermore, the traders will find it best to leave the area. Though it will mean an inconvenience for them, there are other areas from where they can operate, such as the tribal areas on the Afghanistan frontier, where government influence is limited. Even if there is high-level government complicity in this situation, it is reasonable to expect the government to bring pressure on the traders to at least move their base of operations from Gandaf.

Finally, the success of project efforts on Mahaban can be expected to have a long-range impact on the volume of heroin supplies that leave Pakistan for other countries. As Gadoon-Amazai is one of Pakistan's principal poppy-producing areas, its loss of this activity is bound to reduce the total amount of heroin in Pakistan. As these efforts move ahead, however, concern must continue for the poppy farmers themselves to ensure that their lives are not totally disrupted and that they are provided with economic activities that allow them to lead their lives in ways that are consistent with both their traditions and their values.

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