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Trading poppy seeds for wheat

By Staff | Aug 5, 2011

A truck carrying thousands of pounds of processed wheat rolls past Marines and Afghan Uniformed Police on patrol. The wheat will be sold in the local markets and bazaars around the area.

NAWA, Afghanistan (USMC) – The change of agriculture in Afghanistan is steadily steering away from the illegal crops which fund insurgent forces year after year.

Civil Affairs Team 3, which is supporting the Afghan government, plans to continue providing wheat as an alternative to growing poppy and cannabis in Afghanistan’s Nawa District to drive the country into a better future.

The civil affairs team with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, is working with the Afghan government to provide at least one bag of wheat seed and fertilizer per eligible farmers within the Nawa District this September.

The project is a part of the Food Zone Program that allows the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to distribute thousands of bags of wheat seed and fertilizer in Helmand province.

The program reached more than 32,000 farmers within Helmand in 2008 when the program first started.

Marines with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, walk through a wheat field after the top half of the wheat was cut off. Local farmers save the bottom half of the wheat and process it into a fine grainy substance they use to build houses and walls around the area.

Eligibility for the seed and fertilizer will depend on whether or not the farmer has already benefited from the program.

The civil affairs team is working with Nawa District Governor, Haji Abdul Manaf, to determine which farmers haven’t received the wheat seed and fertilizer.

These will be the only ones eligible.

The farmers who have been a part of the program already will have saved a small portion of the wheat they’ve grown to plant next season.

This gives the farmers a self-sufficient alternative to the illegal cultivation of opium poppy.

The project is led by the local government and has been running for the last two years it has shown great success throughout Nawa, said Capt. Corey Bafford, the assistant team leader for the civil affairs team. He said the proof can be seen while on patrol.

“Nawa had a lot of poppy and opium growth … it was everywhere,” Bafford, a Forest Hill, Md., native, said. “Now, when you go out on patrols, you really don’t see poppy and opium being grown in mass quantities like before 2009, when 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment came into the area.

“So, I think the proof is right there.”

The program kicked off two years ago when approximately 300 metric tons of wheat seed arrived at the Nawa District Center and was distributed to more than 3,700 farmers in the region.

The civil affairs team hopes to have greater success this year and provide even more eligible farmers the opportunity to cultivate the wheat that accounts for more than half the caloric intake of the Afghan population, according to reports from the United States Department of Agriculture.

“By (GIRoA) giving them the wheat seed and the fertilizer to help grow that seed; the (government) is helping people transition from growing illicit crops to wheat,” explained Bafford, a 2007 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.

“We hope this will help move Nawa forward.”

Farmers not only process the wheat for consumption, but use the lower half of the wheat stem as a part of their mix to build houses, walls and other hard structures made of mud and bits of wheat.

Maj. Jason Johnson hopes programs like these will help meet the needs of the local residents.

“I think the focus for civil affairs is really centered on the needs of the people and how we can best facilitate the Afghan government’s means to provide for its citizens,” said the civil affairs team leader and Vineland, N.J., native.

“Projects like this one are examples of what we’ve been trying to do and will continue to do until the job is done.”

More than 4,400 packages of wheat and fertilizer will be delivered in September to the projected thousands of farmers in the area.

Editor’s note: First Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck.

The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command, in the southwest, and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations.

The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.

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