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23 Jun 2009 : Column GC405

23 Jun 2009 : Column GC405

Grand Committee

Tuesday, 23 June 2009.

Arrangement of Business


3.30 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton): Before we commence, there are a couple of announcements I need to make. It has been agreed that should any of the Questions for Short Debate not run for their allotted hour this afternoon, the Committee will adjourn during pleasure until the end of the allotted hour. Therefore, each of the Questions for Short Debate will start at half-past the hour, in case anyone is involved in any further amendments. If there is a Division in the Chamber, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.

Afghanistan: Farming

Question for Short Debate

3.30 pm

Tabled By Baroness Rawlings

Baroness Rawlings: I thank the Government for allowing time for me to raise this very important Question, which impacts not only on DfID but also on the Ministry of Defence, as peace in Helmand would have a profound effect on the morale of our soldiers out there. I declare an interest as patron of the mother and child clinic in the Panjshir Valley.

With the problems created in Afghanistan due to the war over the past three or four decades, there exists, especially within the UK, a keen interest to help the people of Afghanistan to better their lives and develop a strong and stable nation. One of the steps to creating economic strengths and stability within Afghanistan is through agriculture, and one of the successful substitutes for growing opium poppies is the cultivation of pomegranates.

In 2007, Afghanistan produced 95 per cent of the world’s refined opiates, with a street value of some $38 billion. On average, 90 per cent of the heroin in the UK stems from Afghanistan. The cost to the UK alone of the heroin problem is £16.4 billion per annum. Furthermore, opium cultivation now takes place almost exclusively in provinces most affected by insurgency, with Helmand being the most profitable. Therefore, a substitution would also seriously damage Taliban financing. The UNODC said:

“There is now a perfect overlap between zones of high risk and regions of high opium cultivation. Since drugs are funding insurgency, and insurgency enables drug cultivation, insurgency and narcotics must be fought together”.

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The Taliban is thought to have earned as much as $100 million from this trade.

Since the Russian invasion of 1979, agriculture has received new impetus, and lately Afghanistan has become poised to become a major exporter of pomegranates, a traditional crop for centuries. Foundations such as POM354 are already in place, trying to persuade more farmers and tribal elders to make this transition from the growth of opium poppies to pomegranates and to help meet the need of farmers.

DfID recently launched its country plan for the next four years for Afghanistan. This plan sets out the framework for Britain’s aid to Afghanistan, with a pledge of more than £127 million per year between now and 2013. This is worth £30 million a year being used to help farmers move away from opium cultivation. As a result, other nations are beginning to take interest, such as the US, Canada and the Netherlands.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office acknowledges that eliminating the opium poppy without developing viable legal livelihoods is not sustainable, and it is therefore suggested that the focus should be on substitution, mainly by pomegranates. The case for replacing opium poppies is clear, but why with pomegranates? Afghanistan is known to have the best pomegranates in the world. Kandahar in the south produces perhaps the world’s best. The Afghan Government are currently implementing a $12 million US-funded initiative intended to modernise and expand the country’s pomegranate industry.

However, many farmers still need to be persuaded to make the transition from poppies to pomegranates. Fourteen of the 34 provinces are poppy-free and I hope that more will follow that trend. The key organisation doing this is POM354, which was founded in Britain by James Brett. Its concept is simple, and as a result, has led to its huge popularity within Afghanistan and the rest of the world. In a short space of time, POM354 has managed to establish substantial consensus within the Government and among farmers. In November 2008, 22,000 farmers signed up to the POM354 scheme and, as a result, in March 2009, 40,000 pomegranate trees were planted. Furthermore, as a result of aid and work by foundations such as POM354, Afghanistan as a whole saw a 6 per cent decrease in opium production between 2007 and 2009.

The goal now is for POM354 to obtain further financial support from organisations in donor countries. It is generally accepted that there is only a short window to alter Afghanistan’s agriculture in favour of pomegranates. Without outside aid, the project would not be able to become operational, as the farmers need to be sustained during the three-year period of conversion—the time between the saplings being planted and becoming fruitful. POM354’s target is over the next 10 to 15 years to develop 175,000 hectares of mature pomegranate orchards generating a substantial income. Through its various schemes, farmers will create their own infrastructure to facilitate this new agricultural development and, in the process, generate greater revenue per hectare than the poppy. Will the Government continue to support alternative viable crops? As a result, the heroin supply would drastically fall and the Afghan people would have a development

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programme prosperous enough to resist the Taliban and, in doing so, create worthwhile livelihoods and a greater chance of peace in the area.

3.38 pm

Lord Ramsbotham: I apologise for not putting my name down, but I was concerned about my possible involvement in the Coroners and Justice Bill. However, I seize the opportunity of the gap to support every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said. One always listens with interest and admiration to what she says.

My interest in Afghanistan was stimulated by my visit to Helmand province last year to see what was going on and to listen to what people said about what they were trying to do, very much along the lines of what the noble Baroness was talking about. I was told—I had read about this before but I had not heard it from the people—that until the time of the Russian intervention, Afghanistan was one of the major exporters around the world of dried fruit and nuts and produced the best. It was mentioned that that should be restimulated as an alternative to the heroin crop—not just pomegranates.

It is particularly sad to learn that our intervention in 2002 was very largely responsible for what has happened to that wonderful growing land in the Helmand valley. Until 2002, that valley was virtually the grain basket of Afghanistan but in 2002 the World Food Programme took in an enormous amount of grain to help feed the people in Afghanistan, so much so that they destroyed the market for the Helmand farmers. Being unable to sell their crops, the farmers took to poppies instead, stimulated, of course, by the Taliban. I discovered what we were trying to do about it: the Royal Air Force had flown in a very large number of sacks of seedcorn which were being held in depots so that, at the end of the poppy crop, the farmers could be given seeds and encouraged to grow something else.

Of course, growing wheat is not what it is all about as much as selling it. Therefore, in taking over the villages and towns of the Helmand province, the military were trying to open markets to which the farmers could take their wheat and sell it. Unfortunately, the Taliban realised that, so they tried, first, to undermine the whole market structure. Secondly, knowing that farmers have to get their wheat along the roads, the Taliban and others have been mounting roadblocks through which the farmers have to pass and in which they are relieved of money, which undermines their wish to go to market. In addition, of course, by having to keep those roads open, the military lay themselves open to all the mines and other devices planted beside the roads which cause so many casualties. So the process, admirable though it is, is not at present organised well enough to be able to achieve the end for the farmers, which is to help them to break away, and it is causing great problems for the military.

What do we do about it? I had a long talk with the commander of the Afghan National Army in Helmand and asked him what he felt was most needed. He said, “Two things: first, you have to stop the bombing”, but that is nothing to do with this particular subject, “and,

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secondly, water”. He said that if you look at the geography, not just at the Helmand valley but at adjacent valleys and other valleys in similar places, you will see it is possible, through civil engineering, to introduce water into the valleys which would encourage the growing of the sort of alternative crops mentioned by the noble Baroness. Therefore, if the world community really wants to help Afghanistan, it has to enable the crops to be grown in the areas where they might be grown, and so encourage the whole process to start.

I think that we could do more. I used to talk about dried fruit and nuts until listening to the noble Baroness speak about pomegranates, but I have often wondered whether the supermarkets of the world might not be encouraged to get together to buy the crop from the farmers in advance to give them some economic wherewithal to survive until the crop is sold, thereby contributing to what they would gain. In this whole area to which the noble Baroness has drawn attention, there are openings in which the world can contribute very considerably to the development of Afghanistan and particularly to the development of those whose lives are made such a misery by the activities of the Taliban at present.

3.44 pm

Lord Avebury: Before I come to the subject of this afternoon’s debate, I extend our sincere condolences to the family of Major Sean Birchall, who was killed in Helmand last Friday, the third Welsh Guardsman to be killed in action, and our profound gratitude to all the soldiers of my regiment and other servicemen who are risking their lives in a cause that is absolutely vital to the whole world—the maintenance and strengthening of a free and democratic Afghanistan. It is essential that we support them with the military resources that they need to defend themselves and the civilian population against the Taliban and, in particular, to deal with IEDs, the favourite weapon of the terrorists. Do we have access to the counter-IED technologies, on which the Americans are reported to be spending $4 billion a year?

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, on securing this debate and having dealt so effectively with the question of crop substitution. As she says, poppy cultivation reached an enormous peak of 8,200 tonnes in 2007, and the area under cultivation was also a record at 193,000 hectares in that year. But there are now hopeful signs. There was a reduction in 2008, and the business is concentrated in the seven provinces of the south and south-west, where the terrorists are still influential. The Secretary-General's special representative says that a further improvement is likely in 2009. With the extra 20,000 NATO troops, and the Afghan army also increasing in numbers and efficiency, there ought to be positive feedback, as the terrorists find it harder to coerce farmers into growing poppy, and to raise the taxes on their production, which is their main source of revenue. Crop substitution would make an enormous impact on the finance of terrorism, whether in the form of pomegranates, fruit and nuts or what seems to be the main alternative—wheat.

At the same time, the relative economics of growing poppy and those other crops have changed. The EU special representative's April counternarcotics update

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quoted a local estimate from Helmand that wheat is now about 8 per cent more profitable than opium, and the report suggests that there may be a window of opportunity for alternative crop development, as the noble Baroness said. In 2008, DfID and USAID jointly issued free wheat seed to 32,000 farmers in Helmand, and it would be useful to know what the plan is for this year. We are also reviewing, with the Afghan Government, a new four-year programme to succeed the Helmand agriculture and rural development programme, to which DfID contributed £30 million over 2006-09 for infrastructure, including roads, wells—I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that water is of vital importance in this climate—and an agriculture high school. How far has the review of the programme progressed, and do we believe that it will achieve a permanent and sustained transfer from poppy to wheat cultivation in Helmand?

The same report contrasted the huge success of governor-led eradication programmes in Helmand, which it says dwarfed those in all other provinces and were the highest ever recorded for GLE in 2008. This governor, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will confirm, is exceptional in Helmand, in terms of both his abilities and his incorruptibility. Does the Minister think that perhaps that is not the case with other governors of provinces where narcotics are grown or trafficked, and that some may either have active interests in the local narcotics industry or are not strong enough to challenge the authority of local narcotics traffickers? If so, do we have to acquiesce in the situation, or could there be a strategy for their replacement?

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, has slated US eradication efforts as “wasteful and inefficient”. If eradication is to continue, should it not be concentrated on the GLE rather than the poppy eradication force activities, which are costing more than a hundred times as much per hectare as the GLE and achieving less? Do the Government have a view on whether eradication should be done at all? If so, how should it be incorporated into development at provincial and district level, and who should do it?

Do we also agree with Mr Holbrooke's call for,

This seems to be the pattern in Helmand, where a month ago Mr Ian Purves, the UK's development co-ordinator in Garmsir, was showing journalists round the new bazaar, new tarmac roads, solar-powered streetlights and the refurbished school and health centre. The local farmers in and around the town are now growing wheat from seed distributed in 2007 instead of poppies. The Commander of the UK Task Force Helmand told the journalists that the local government and people had grasped the opportunity of better security to improve their living conditions, and the same could happen throughout the south as the Taliban is defeated.

For the time being, according to DfID, Helmand still accounts for more than 50 per cent of the country's opium poppy cultivation in 2007-08 and was also the most important province in terms of heroin processing and trafficking. But provinces in the peaceful north,

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such as Badakhshan, now virtually poppy-free, also need help. Of the $32 billion spent by international donors in Afghanistan, only $8 billion has been channelled through the Government, and in Badakhshan the farmers say that they have had no help from either the Government or the aid agencies. UNAMA, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, is supposed to co-ordinate the aid programmes, but with those vast sums, a third of the population is still chronically food insecure. What is the Government's view on the transparency and accountability of these programmes, and can the Minister say whether any of the missing $24 billion not spent through the Government has been allocated to the promotion of alternative crops? Why is that not among the six core areas of UNODC's strategy?

The DfID evaluation report published last month said that counternarcotics efforts are a combination of economic development, provision of social services, and better governance and the rule of law. It said that programmes such as the Afghanistan alternative livelihoods project and research in alternative livelihoods fund have made valuable contributions to producing alternatives to poppy. There is considerable effort to secure Afghan ownership of the programmes. We fund most of our alternative livelihood programmes through the Afghan Government and their agencies, and that must be the right approach in the long term. But the narcotics mafia has infected the Government themselves, with senior figures either using government institutions to run the business, or protecting the major narcotics traffickers. These traitors to Afghanistan would take ownership of counternarcotics efforts only in order to subvert them, as has happened, to some extent, with eradication. The quarterly report from NATO puts this in more diplomatic language when it says:

“Most of the ministries remain ineffective, under-resourced and lacking in skilled or experienced personnel, and this lack of institutional capacity makes it difficult for ministries to administer and disburse funds”.

Are we using financial, developmental and military forces effectively to drive forward Afghan-led reform to clean up the Administration, and can these efforts succeed when President Karzai himself tolerates drug collusion by senior officials and even Ministers?

The management response to the DfID evaluation says that both on the Afghan side and in DfID, the context has changed since the evaluation, and on poppy cultivation, a new initiative to sustain reductions is being developed by the Afghan Government with DfID's support, taking into account the lessons learnt from both successful and unsuccessful efforts to date. Could the Minister say how is this work progressing and, in particular, how the weak co-ordination among donors and the ineffectiveness of UNAMA and other UN agencies are being tackled? Can the knowledge and experience of counternarcotics that we have acquired be transferred to other donors, particularly to our 18 EU partners who are involved?

Finally, does the Minister consider that PRTs have a useful role to play in counternarcotics strategy, bearing in mind their lack of an explicit mandate and, if any of them have done effective work, could that be continued by other agencies?

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3.56 pm

Lord Brett: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this important subject. I would have been even more grateful had it been standing room only at the back and had a lot more noble Lords been interested in the subject—it may be due not to a lack of interest but to other attractions. However, in the contributions that we have heard we have had quality even if we have not had quantity. I shall seek to answer the many questions that were asked, but perhaps I may start by putting the issue into context.

It is one of those debates where there are no two sides; we have had a series of points, questions, criticisms—justifiable in many cases—and an understanding that we have to do more to alleviate the tragedy that is Afghanistan. While there is much to do, we have some successes to point to.

As we all know, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries. We know that the UK’s own security is threatened by continued instability in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. We are committed to helping the Government of Afghanistan secure the future of their country and forge a better life for all Afghan people.

Three years ago, the UK and Afghanistan signed a 10-year development partnership agreement. This April, the Secretary of State for International Development launched a new DfID country plan for Afghanistan, worth £510 million in aid over the next four years. That firmly underlines our commitment, and makes Afghanistan our fifth largest development programme world wide. Our efforts, civilian and military, are contributing at national and local levels towards helping Afghans overcome the insurgency and secure, govern and develop the country for themselves—a point that was made in the debate.

It is worth looking back over the past seven years to some of the progress that has been made. This year, Afghanistan will hold its second set of democratic presidential elections. In the previous election, six out of 10 Afghans exercised their democratic rights by voting for the first time in more than 35 years—a figure that should make us slightly ashamed of our own voting performance in elections held recently. Five million refugees have been able to return home. And where just one in 10 Afghans lived in districts with access to basic healthcare, that figure is now up to eight in 10.

Of course, very serious challenges remain across Afghanistan. In the past year, many Afghans have become more pessimistic about their personal safety and their country’s prospects for moving forward. Afghanistan is facing simultaneously four scourges that would individually trouble any country in the world: weak governance, poverty, insurgency and narcotics. It is the last of those challenges and how we find alternative ways forward which are at the centre of today’s debate.

The noble Baroness spoke of alternative agricultural products to replace the farmers’ requirement to grow poppies. She made reference to Helmand province in particular, where the suggested alternative to poppy-growing is pomegranates through the project, POM354.

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DfID is supportive of the aims of POM354. Discussions have taken place with Mr Brett, who is no relation of mine—I say that to protect his reputation, not mine—and officials have offered technical assistance and advice. Our development programme works to create the economic conditions for organisations such as POM354 to succeed, but we do not fund individual initiatives. Our recommendation to POM354 and its initiative is to produce a detailed business plan which will help to maximise the programme’s chances of success and help conversations with donors. DfID will continue to provide advice on such a plan. We have also had reference to the wheat-growing initiative, which I will come to in the latter part of my contribution.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, raises an important point about the infrastructure requirement to allow markets to work and the growers of products to have access without intimidation. DfID is supporting infrastructure in Helmand with £32 million over the next four years aimed at irrigation, the Lashkar Gah to Gereshk road—which addresses the question about access to markets—the Gereshk hydro-power plant, which will help to boost the economy and the opening of airfields for the first commercial flights at Bost on 3 June, together with £4.5 million for an agricultural centre to improve access to markets.

We are also aware of the need to improve the economic and commercial background to the country. DfID is supporting the Afghanistan investment climate facility with £30 million to improve the regulatory environment in which to start businesses, removing some of those bureaucratic and difficult obstacles that prevent small businesses of any kind getting to the point at which they are sustainable.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raised a series of points that are all worthy of comment. He made a point which I echo, and to which the Government have already committed, which is of course our condolences on the death of Major Sean Birchall. It is a sad fact of life that our brave soldiers give service. That inevitably has its cost, which is a terrible burden for their families. Whenever we hear of the death of service personnel, support staff or the innocents involved, we can only send out our hearts to those who have lost a loved one.

The noble Lord raised counter-IED technologies, on which the Americans, as he pointed out, are reported to be spending $4 billion. He gave me advance notice of the question, so I was able to seek reference to the ministerial Statement to the House of Commons made by the then Secretary of Defence, John Hutton, on 29 April. He made the point that units will provide important additional capabilities for UK forces in Afghanistan, and said:

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