“Because of the coronavirus I lost my job. I have a family of 12 members, I am the breadwinner,” said Fazily, 42, a mechanic in the central province of Uruzgan who, like many Afghans, goes by one name.”I have no other way but to work in poppy fields to make some money.”Farmers usually rely on a seasonal labour force for the spring and summer harvesting months but the coronavirus pandemic meant many were unwilling or unable to travel for the work.A report published by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in June found a shortage of workers had been observed “in the western and southern provinces of the country, mainly due to the closure of a border crossing with Pakistan”. Topics : Students unable to go to school because of the lockdown were among those who filled in, heading to the opium poppy fields looking to make quick cash.”Our school is closed and I have enough time to go work in a poppy field and make some money,” said Nazir Ahmad, an 18-year-old student in Kandahar.”About 20 of my classmates are also working here.”More than 38,000 cases of coronavirus have been declared in Afghanistan and more than 1,400 deaths, though the health ministry estimated earlier this month that a third of the population has likely contracted the disease.A months-long lockdown, which has mainly affected cities, has slowly been lifted since the beginning of August, with some schools, wedding halls and markets reopening.Despite myriad eradication programs over the years, Afghan farmers continue to grow poppies with near impunity, as both government officials and the Taliban often profit from the lucrative trade.Read also: Myanmar’s opium farmers cling on to lucrative cropMost poppy production is centered in the Taliban-controlled southern strongholds, although opium is also grown along the country’s eastern border with Pakistan.”There were no jobs, and a lot of people, especially my relatives and villagers, resorted to poppy cultivation due to joblessness,” Musafir, a resident of Khogyani district of eastern Nangarhar province, told AFP.The Taliban has long profited from poppies by taxing farmers and traffickers, and running its own drug-making factories that turn raw opium into morphine or heroin for export, with drugs then trafficked through neighboring Pakistan and Iran.International donors have spent billions of dollars on counter-narcotics drives in Afghanistan over the past decade, including programs to encourage farmers to switch to other cash crops such as saffron.But efforts to move farmers away from their lucrative but dangerous poppies have met with little success.”The forced-eradication policy has not worked in the past 18 years,” said Hayatullah Hayat, governor of southern Kandahar province.”Unfortunately, Kandahar faces an increase in poppy cultivation this year.” Afghans pushed out of work by the coronavirus pandemic after businesses and schools were shuttered have turned to opium cultivation for cash during this year’s poppy harvest.Afghanistan has long been the world’s top grower of opium, producing more than 80 percent of the global supply and providing hundreds of thousands of jobs in the perennially cash-strapped economy.A coronavirus lockdown and travel restrictions saw trade grind to a halt and many businesses were forced to lay off staff, in a conflict-riven country where stable jobs are already rare.
Dear Editor,Like most Americans, the only thing I knew about Guyana was that a very tragic event transpired some 40 years ago in the jungle that featured a megalomaniac preacher. There is a saying that we in the US can’t locate a country on a map until our military bombs it.Among all the things I learned over the past few years is that Guyana has a sizable Hindu population. Thankfully, attending the annual Hindu Mandir Executive Conference in Trinidad some four years ago resulted in a serious offer to visit. The trip would be sponsored by a few Guyanese along with my advocacy organisation, The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), where I sit on its National Leadership Council (HAFSITE.ORG). Though the A in HAF specifically indicates “America,” as in “the United States of…” the Board and staff agreed that we must not dismiss such sizable populations in close proximity.The scenery in Guyana is awesome but it is the people that really make the lasting impressions. I was immediately overwhelmed with great kindness and hospitality.The 1st few of my 9 days were spent at The Social Services Centre of Excellence in Woodley Park, WCB. This was founded by Pandit and educator, Ram Rattan, who currently spends most of his time in Florida but continues to maintain a presence in Guyana. This is truly a jewel of a place, offering classes for social and individual improvement. Sri Ramji was kind enough to provide me with a room and all meals when he learnt the purpose of my trip. He even joined me for several of the lectures I gave in that general area.Since so many Indians who became indentured in Guyana were from Utter Pradesh, my experience allowed me to sample new tastes—seven curry on lotus leaves.One breath-taking trip was the ferry from Parika to Essequibo. Everything about it—the water, passing the beautiful islands, and the wonderful breeze, all contributed to a feeling of great content.Guyana has absolutely stunning homes. What impresses most is the originality of the designs and architecture. All the houses are unique, unlike our dull subdivisions. I know that Guyana is not a “rich” country, but everyone in the US with whom I shared my photos would like to visit. I saw many inspiring temples outstanding among which was the one at Gay Park, overseen by female Pandita, Srimati Maraj. Our guide for the day, generous and always willing to help, Rudy (back shop) Rampersaud, made sure that we visited the site where indentured servants first landed in 1838.I would encourage Hindus from the US and India alike to take a lesson from the way pujas and yagnas are conducted in Guyana. We spend too much time in rituals that few can understand but in the land of endless summer, the rituals are briefer. There is always an accomplished harmoniumist and percussionist. The power of bhajans create an atmosphere of true bhakti. The kathas delivered by the pundits are the centre of attention. Drawing from the stories of the Ramayana (mostly) they engage the devotees in a way that I don’t often see in standard American Hindu temples. There are exceptions here, but they are rare.At US temples people overindulge in socialising. No matter if it is a church, synagogue or mosque, members have to be constantly told to stop talking. However, at a yagna with over 500 in attendance at Hampton Court on the Essequibo Coast, all eyes and ears were on presiding Pandit Lalaram from the Bath Settlement, Berbice. They were also very kind to me when I was asked to speak.Visiting and staying with Swami Aksharananda allowed me to speak for an entire day to the students at Saraswati Vidya Niketan, a private Hindu School at Cornelia Ida. The behaviour of the children, their rigorous schedule and the quality of the teachers, all contributed to its status as one of the best in the country. If we could import that level of academic professionalism to the US we would have a greater nation. Fixed in memory is a trip to the Stabroek Market, where I was able to purchase a beautiful gold necklace from the most venerable jewellery merchants in Guyana. I was warned that this was not the safest place for a white foreigner, but I was fortunate to have Swami with me.The purpose of my trip was to investigate the challenge that the Hindu community is dealing with what we call predatory conversion. While acknowledging the sanctity of a person’s decision to move from one religion to another, we know that some religious groups use methods on individuals and communities to persuade them to adopt a religion they wouldn’t normally join if not for pressure. This coercion can come in the form of bribery, medical aid, professional gains, etc. It was thought that a white American who did, in fact, leave his birth religion of his own accord to embrace Dharma might have a positive impact on the devotees who have to deal with ideas of superiority that the European explorers took with them to their colonies. In my conversations with retired lawyer and Guyanese-Canadian writer, Ram Sahadeo, we discussed a lecture tour I completed back in 2005 when I crisscrossed much of India’s northeast states, speaking at local temples, schools and public venues in an attempt to resist the rampant predatory conversion practices there. There seemed to be much interest in our mission in Guyana. Several good connections were made and many ideas were discussed but much more coordination is needed to combat this problem using the Gandhian principle of Ahimsa.Anyone interested in a more detailed report can contact me at [email protected],Fred StellaMember,NationalLeadership CouncilHinduAmerican Foundation