Barefoot and laughing with glee, Afghan farmer Mohammad Jan squelches through a muddy field of sprouting opium poppies, talking excitedly of his coming harvest.
"This field will be a beautiful sight, not even the Americans will want to destroy it when they see it," he said, rubbing his hands at the thought of the $14,000 he expects to reap from the potentially deadly crop.
Jan, whose land lies 22 kilometres west of the main southern Afghan city of Kandahar, is one of many farmers in the region to benefit from the first major downpours in the drought-hit region for more than four years.
Heavy rains have been falling since late last week, after weeks of sporadic drizzle. Though the rains will bring welcome relief, they have arrived too late to prevent landowners from turning to the lucrative poppies, which are flourishing across Afghanistan in what is expected to be a bumper harvest.
"Poppies need little water and offer greater returns than wheat. I have a family of 15 to feed and without seeds, water and help from the government, I have no choice but to grow them," the 42-year-old added.
Hundreds of farmers have been emboldened into flouting new anti-poppy laws by the December 2001 collapse of the hardline former Taliban regime, which imposed strict punishment for cultivating the plants.
"This year 50 percent of the farmers in my village are growing poppies, so that gives me the courage to plant them.
"I cannot fight against the government because it is impossible, but if they try to destroy my crops, at least they might pay me some compensation."
According to UN figures, Afghanistan now produces three-quarters of the world's opium, much of which finds its way on to the streets of Europe and the United States as lethally addictive heroin.
An Afghan government programme to make one-off payments to farmers for the destruction of their poppy crop has so far failed to significantly dent harvests, which many say are sponsored by provincial officials.
"Why should I stop growing poppies when the poppy field next to mine belongs to a senior member of the government?" said Ahmad Shah, tending crops outside the village of Nagahan, 20 kilometres north of Kandahar.
"Before, I used to grow pomegranates, but because of the drought I had to stop. Poppies were the only way to support my family."
Government officials in Kandahar, which alongside the neighbouring provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan and eastern Nangarhar is one of the country's main drug-producing areas, welcomed the new rainfall but said farmers needed to be growing wheat, not opium.
"Because of all the rain we have been having, hopefully we will not have any drought, our streams will be full, electricity dams will work and farmers can grow wheat," said Kandahar irrigation and water director Shir Mohammad.
"But there is still a problem with the poppies, and we need to find some way to stop it."
Kandahar agriculture director Halih Mohammad called for international aid to cut opium production. "We are already seeing more and more farmers turning to wheat, but many are still growing poppies. This is a worry for the government and we need more international help to stop it," he said.
Even as government workers were attempting to destroy fields in many parts of the province, nature this week lent the authorities an unexpected helping hand. A hailstorm, rare for the temperate southern regions, devastated many opium fields.
Disgruntled farmer Mia Jan said 30 percent of his poppy crop had been destroyed by hail falling on the village of Baba Saab, 16 km north of Kandahar.news.sify.com/cgi-bin/sifynews/news/content/news_fullstory_v2.jsp?article_oid=12E-mail this article