KABUL, Jan. 12, 2010 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan yesterday, where U.S. government civilian experts are working closely with local government officials to provide Afghan farmers with enough guidance and incentives to create a shift away from opium poppy to crops such as wheat and melons. Vilsack is the first Cabinet Secretary in the Obama Administration to travel to Southern Afghanistan.
In July 2009, U.S. Marines wrested control of Nawa district in central Helmand from a strong Taliban presence that is heavily funded by the province’s opium production. However, in 2009, opium cultivation in Afghanistan decreased by 22 percent overall according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, from 157,000 hectares in 2008 to 123,000 hectares by autumn 2009. Helmand, which produces a majority of Afghanistan’s opium crop, saw cultivation decline by a third to less than 70,000 hectares. The reduction, said Vilsack, is due in part to a strong U.S. civilian-military presence that has allowed local governments in districts such as Nawa to deliver services to its people and give them hope for a brighter future. As a result, Afghans have gained greater confidence in their government.
While in Nawa, the Secretary also toured a bazaar where he talked to farmers selling goods in addition to meeting with district council members who recently endured the murder of three of their colleagues.
“In the area of agricultural productivity, we’ve heard from farmers who were able to increase significantly their grape production,” said Vilsack to reporters during his visit to Nawa. “We saw efforts at encouraging farmers to produce wheat by subsidizing the additional planting of wheat. We have also had an opportunity to visit with a number of people who are working for [the U.S. Agency for International Development] and USDA in the area of natural resources. [We heard] about thousands, tens of thousands, and in some cases millions of trees being planted in this country.”
Vilsack met with Helmand’s governor Gulab Mangal, who has worked with U.S. civilian-military teams to induce farmers to abandon opium for subsidized wheat seed and fertilizer. Afghanistan harvested its biggest wheat crop in 50 years in 2009, seeing record gains in yield and riding a surge in seasonal rains and market prices that benefitted Afghan wheat farmers throughout the country. USDA agricultural experts and program staff from USAID have also been instrumental in helping Afghan farmers improve grape production and orchard crops such as apples and nuts.