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Ten pallets of wheat and vegetable seed and fertilizer are stacked on a flight line in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, before they are transferred to Kajaki, Sept. 30, 2011, where they will be distributed to local farmers. Twenty-one metric tons will be distributed in Kajaki over the next several weeks as part of a livelihood stabilization movement in Helmand province. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Katherine M. Solano)

Photo by Cpl. Katherine M. Solano

Wheat seed distribution gives hope to Helmand Afghans

30 Sep 2011 | Cpl. Katherine M. Solano

For decades now, Afghan locals have been relying on a crop cycle of poppy and cannabis to provide income and a stable livelihood for their families.

According to the United Nations, profits from the narcotics trade are directly linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan, creating $155 million in revenue in 2009, while Afghanistan supplies roughly 90 percent of the world’s opium.

It is the mission of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team’s counter-narcotics cell to give the local populace an alternative to the drug trade by way of wheat and vegetable crops.

For the previous three years, the PRT has been conducting seed and fertilizer distribution efforts in Helmand province. The program, initiated by the Helmand provincial governor, Golab Mangal, has touched the lives of more than 40,000 farmers and their families this year, according to Maj. William Bye, a key developer in the wheat seed distribution program with the PRT in Lashkar Gah.

By promoting the harvest of legitimate food crops, the PRT looks to drastically reduce the effects of the heroin drug trade in the area, which currently affects nearly 100,000 citizens in Helmand province alone.

“Everybody in Helmand knows somebody who is addicted or has a family member themselves who is addicted,” Bye said. “They’ve seen the devastating effect it has on those individuals. They are also reasonably well educated in the fact that the insurgency gains a lot of their income from poppy and from the opium trade. They’re aware that the insurgency is killing them and is making their freedom of movement difficult. So on the whole, they generally do not want to grow poppy. They are receptive to persuasion to grow something else, if they’ve got the security and the freedom of movement to do so.”

It has been the joint efforts of the combat forces of Regional Command (Southwest), the Afghan Uniformed Police and the Afghan National Army to provide locals with this security and peace of mind over the last four years while the counter-narcotics cell implemented the project.

Bye also pointed out the far-reaching effects the poppy crops have on the international drug trade. He emphasized the importance of giving Afghans a lifestyle alternative to stabilize the country in order to positively affect the rest of the world.

“Heroin from Afghanistan is found routinely on the streets in Europe and in America,” he said. “Where there are illicit drugs, there is always violence and crime associated with it. If we can reduce the amount of heroin that is flowing into our markets, then we can work on reducing the crime that is found at home.”

According to Bye, over the past four years, the program has spread to 11 surrounding districts. The most recent district to become involved was Kajaki. Up until Kajaki joined the distribution efforts, the seed had been delivered solely by ground movements. However, Kajaki can only be reached by air.

The 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward) was called upon to provide logistical support for the first air delivery of the seed and fertilizer to Kajaki. Staff Sgt. Jason Skaggs, the 2nd MLG (FWD) transportation coordinator, assisted in the movements of the wheat seed from Lashkar Gah, where it is held in large warehouses, to Kajaki. Thirty-four warehouse pallets weighing a total of 21 metric tons will be delivered over the course of the next several weeks.

Skaggs weighed in on the benefits of promoting wheat and other crops over the harvest of poppy.

“Wheat can provide income and food, whereas poppy is a cash crop that is made into an illegal drug, causing instability due to its addictive nature,” he said. “Poppy will only degrade the Afghanistan culture further.”

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