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Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

2. What progress has been made on the policy of incentivisation for growing crops other than opium poppy in Afghanistan. (255786)

Progress is being made on promoting legal crop growing in Afghanistan. The number of poppy-free provinces has increased from three in 2006 to 13 in 2007, and to 18 in 2008. Poppy cultivation fell in 2008 by 19 per cent. across Afghanistan, and the percentage of agricultural land devoted to poppy growing has fallen to just 2 per cent.

When I was in Helmand province last year, I was surprised to learn that the reason farmers grew poppy rather than other crops such as wheat was Taliban intimidation, rather than profitability—it is more profitable to grow wheat, particularly if free seed and input is provided. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be sufficient supplies of seed and input for farmers so that they can feel sufficiently secure to turn to more conventional crops?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the challenges faced in Helmand province in allowing farmers to make the transition from poppy growing to legal crop growing, such as wheat. That is why our comprehensive approach involves greater security and enforcement of the rule of law. It is a matter of improving infrastructure, developing rural enterprise with micro-credit schemes and, importantly for farmers, allowing the freedom of movement of crops.

Would my hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that there is co-ordination between his Department and the Ministry of Defence to provide the level of security to which he referred? Is he clear, as others may well not be, on the role of the UK in Afghanistan, and on any exit plans it has, in the light of some discussions this week that suggest that we could be there for years while making little progress?

My hon. Friend points out that there is an important role to play in co-ordinating military activity in Helmand with the reconstruction and economic regeneration that is so vital to the people of Afghanistan. That is why we have impressed upon Afghanistan the need to enforce the rule of law, which is done through our contacts with the MOD and military forces, and we have worked with Governor Mangal on the promotion of legal crop growing, such as the $11 million programme to invest in wheat seeds for 32,000 farmers in Helmand province.

Within the past few days, there have been reports of a rift developing between a senior American commander at NATO headquarters, who wants to go back to a more aggressive policy of eradication of poppy by force, and the senior American theatre commander who, rightly, wants to ensure that it is a matter of incentives not crude, counter-productive methods. Will the Minister and his colleagues do everything that they can to convey which side of the argument we are on to our American friends and allies?

I am not aware of the specific discussions that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but there is an $11 million programme to incentivise farmers to move from poppy to wheat growing. DFID has supported it with some $8 million, and the United States Agency for International Development, the development body of the US Government, has contributed the remaining $3 million.