If you are a poor farmer in Afghanistan (or for that matter, Laos, Myanmar, etc) and you can either grow crops that sell or crops that don’t sell, what are you going to do? It doesn’t even make sense to ask poverty-level farmers to do the “honorable” thing in the anti-drug crusade and go hungry. Being pragmatic has gone out of fashion in Washington over the last few years but at least Gordon Brown is giving it a go.
Gordon Brown is planning a radical scheme to subsidise farmers in Afghanistan to persuade them to stop producing heroin, as part of a wide-ranging drive to re-energise policy in the conflict the prime minister now regards as the front line in the fight against terrorism.
The Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown has admitted that the rise in opium production in the country means Britain “cannot just muddle along in the middle” and must come up with more imaginative ideas on opium eradication.
Ministers are looking at what Lord Malloch-Brown describes as a system of payments loosely along the lines of the common agricultural policy to woo the Afghan farmers off opium production. The government is conducting joint research on suitable economic incentives with the World Bank.
A similar strategy was rolled out in northern Thailand in the late 1980′s with reasonable success. Today the former poppy growing region is one of the nicest regions to visit in Thailand. The Thai royal family (the Princess Mother, in particular) took a leading role in the program that helped replace poppy fields with coffee and macadamia nuts. (Here is a great PDF download about about the program.) The program helped promote those products as well as other locally produced goods so instead of growing poppy (for heroin) they grow and produce other products to feed themselves. The end result are farmers who can grow products that are in demand that do not add to the drug trade problems. They also created one of the most spectacular public gardens in the world, The Mae Fah Luang Garden.
This is an obvious situation where pragmatism will produce greater results compared to the moralizing sledgehammer approach that has been failing year after year in Afghanistan.
UPDATE: Check out the Mae Fah Luang Garden photos on Flickr. What a stunning garden and orchids to die for.