MARJAH, Afghanistan --
Through a joint effort, the Afghan National Army, non-governmental organizations and Marines are overseeing the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition program, which has moved into its next stage, April 22.
The program is part of a coordinated effort to assist Marjah residents as they transition away from poppy and switch to legal, alternative crops. Participants in the program receive financial assistance, as well as much needed tools and supplies if they meet the required criteria, the foremost being; ceasing to harvest and grow poppy.
Whether or not participants have destroyed their poppy crops is verified by Marine and Afghan National Army patrols that are actively on the lookout for participants in the program. Those taking part are required to show the patrol their progress so far. If there has been a valid attempt at changing one’s crop, the patrol will sign the farmer’s vouchers, which are turned in at the government center where they will receive 3,000 Afghanis, as well as fertilizer and farming equipment, explained Maj. David Fennell the civil affairs team leader attached to 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
“The verification process is starting to speed up,” said Fennell. “But, you run into the realities on the ground, like the scope of the operation and the amount of footwork it takes.”
The Marine’s who carry out the verification process, due so in addition to their regular security duties and census work. The responsibility to judge whether or not the residents who signed up for the program have made a genuine effort to change their crops falls on these Marines, most of whom are in their late teens and early twenties.
“Some of [the farmers] have harvested the poppy and then cut them down,” said Cpl. Timothy B. Stark, squad leader with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1/6. “Poppy season has been horrible this year due to a harsh winter. They view this as a great way of us helping them and know that what they’re doing is good, but they are wary of the Taliban. Now that we’ve started signing the vouchers, word travels fast and people come from all across the city.”
“As long as they’ve killed off poppy and have made the effort, we’ve signed the voucher,” said Stark. “Once crops are destroyed they get their money as well as the fertilizer, seed and tools.”
To date, 400 vouchers have been signed out of approximately 1,500 registered participants. Those who have turned in their vouchers to the government center have received payment and fertilizer and have begun to plant their new crops and make plans for the future harvest.
“The companies are doing a great job of hitting the dirt and meeting people, inspecting the crops and signing off on vouchers,” said Fennell. “The Marines on the ground need to go out and judge whether or not a credible effort has been made to change. It’s trying work; a program like this does not happen without a lot of blood sweat and tears. Any time you’re dealing with locals and money, it can be a very complicated venture. These Marines manage a lot of different expectations. The number of things that need to happen to make this work is astounding.”