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An Afghan farmer works a grape field in front of a poppy field in Panjwaii district south of Bazar-e Panjwaii on April 20, 2011. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)
An Afghan farmer works a grape field in front of a poppy field in Panjwaii district south of Bazar-e Panjwaii on April 20, 2011. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

Opium production

In Afghanistan's Panjwaii fields the poppies grow Add to ...

In Panjwaii fields the poppies grow.

Their delicate shades of pastel mauve and pink providing a defiant splash of colour set off against startlingly green grape fields or an otherwise drab brown vista.

If there is a concerted government push to rid Afghanistan of opium-producing poppies, no one appears to have told the farmers of Panjwaii.

“Kandahar province and Helmand province are two of the ones that have been least impacted by the policies set down by the Afghan government,” said Canadian Captain Adam Siokalo, who has spent many months in the area.

“They're putting a push on to come down here more and more.”

So far, however, the delicate plants grow unmolested in scraggly patches much like weeds.

Mostly, however, they thrive in neatly tended rows behind mud walls or between rows of lush grape plants.

Panjwaii's district governor, Haji Fazluddin Agha, acknowledges the fields of poppies splashed across his area.

“This district was under the control of Taliban and insurgents, and they were gaining a lot of advantage from the poppy fields,” Mr. Fazluddin said in an interview.

“It's still going on.”

Winning the hearts and minds of locals is critical to the battle against the insurgency in this area, the Taliban's heartland.

As a result, the official lack of desire to pick a fight with those whose livelihoods depend on the lucrative poppy crop is not surprising.

Besides, there are more pressing issues: security, roads, schools, clean water and health clinics are all far higher up on the political agenda.

Still, the district governor, who Canadian soldiers consider a well-connected get-things-done politician with contacts on both sides of the insurgent war, is adamant the anti-poppy campaign is at least under active consideration, with a list of poppy fields that are of concern.

“Lately we've been working on that,” Mr. Fazluddin said.

“Day by day, we've been improving with the help of the provincial governor and myself.

“Day by day, we've been getting a lot of information about that. We've been growing that list, or we've been destroying a lot of poppy fields.”

For Canadian soldiers patrolling rural areas, the poppy fields are mostly of interest as places where insurgents might sow improvised explosives.

On another level, the rain-delayed harvest is of some comfort, as it keeps young Afghan men, who might otherwise be attacking them, at work in the fields.

“We report where (the fields) are, the size and what stage of the harvest,” said Captain Jean-François Legault, platoon commander at a small base south of the town of Bazar-e Panjwaii.

“It's definitely not the job of Canadians to act on it.”

Last week, the United Nations forecast poppy cultivation would fall slightly this year in Kandahar province but overall harvest rates in the country were expected to rise amid sharply higher prices.

Out in the western regions of Panjwaii, an area into which Canadian soldiers have only dared venture in recent months, there may be a dawning awareness that poppy growing is officially frowned on, Capt. Legault said.

One day, perhaps, the eradication program, which compensates farmers who switch to other cash crops, may actually reach them.

“It is becoming a subject of conversation with the locals,” Capt. Siokalo said.

“They've started asking if it's going to happen, when.”

For now, at least, in Panjwaii fields the poppies still grow. Defiantly. Beautiful.

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