Afghanistan: Poppies aplenty

Afghanistan’s farmers earned $1.4 billion from opium in 2011, an increase of 133 percent over the year before. That’s about 9 percent of the country’s GDP. Policy options to constrain poppy cultivation have all fallen short.

Poppy cultivation was at its peak in Afghanistan in 2007, but recent reports suggest that there is to be a bumper crop this year. According to a recent UN report, there is an increase in production in 9 provinces since 2011. The provinces of Kandahar and Hilmand are the biggest producers with increases expected in the north western provinces. The increasing price of opium is to blame for this, as well as conditions of poverty, insecurity, corruption and mis-governance. According to the above mentioned UN Report, “High sales price of opium” was the predominant reason (71%) for growing opium (77% in 2011). About 13% of respondents in villages with opium cultivation cited that poverty was the reason for cultivating opium. This was followed by “high income from little land” (5%) as reason for cultivating opium.

Expected opium cultivation trends in 2012 (by province)

According to The Economist, this has reversed the gains made through the the British government’s “food zone” initiative which was one effort to cut down the opium trade. Under this initiative, farmers were subsidized to grow alternative crops, with the successive dismantling of poppy farms. The zone is implemented in central Helmand where security conditions have improved with an inflow of British, American and other foreign troops. However, this has led to the trade being transferred to neighboring Farah, as well as drug barons striking deals with the Taliban.

Price of dry opium and food grains in 2011 and 2012 (US$/kg)
Opium Winter Risk Assessment Survey, 2012

Thus until an alternative-crop programs does not become generally applicable, gains in one province will just move production to another. There is evidence to suggest that more subsidies and facilities to farmers could make them switch crops. There is a strong, statistically significant association between lack of agricultural assistance and poppy cultivation according to the UN. Villages, which had not received agricultural assistance, were more likely to grow poppy than villages which had received assistance. But with the security conditions, Taliban, and weak state of government this seems unlikely to happen in the medium term.

The US has already spent $4.7 billion on anti-drug programs in Afghanistan, with minimal results, which is why their policy shifted to “food zone” type of programs. A simple yet drastic option is to buy up all the opium with the same amount of money that was previously been used for anti-drug programs. A recent New York Times article suggests that if the United States and its partners bought all of Afghanistan’s opium, a major source of corruption in Afghanistan would disappear along with violence in Taliban controlled areas as well as global heroin and morphine addiction. The opium could be redirected to medical use, like morphine which is in globally in short supply. This type of “buying up” has the potential to make the drug trade legal and provide and honest living for farmers. India, for example, has implemented a licensing system where accredited farmers grow opium and it is processed and exported. Even with leakages into illicit markets, there would still be progress.

While the above options seem unlikely to be implemented soon, foreign donors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on border security and counter-narcotics projects designed to cut trafficking through Asia. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 30% of Afghan opiates (including 90 tonnes of heroin a year) pass through Central Asia on their way to Russia, most of them through Tajikistan. The Economist believes that the industry is equivalent to 30-50% of Tajikistan’s GDP. NATO which is trying to withdraw from the region does not want to upset the status quo to keep the Tajik government supporting NATO.

Moves by the NATO alliance to disrupt Afghanistan’s drug trade has been slowed by objections from member nations that say their laws do not permit soldiers to carry out such operations and that this distracts from the real purpose of fighting terrorism. It seems that the global black market for opium will continue to do well in coming years.

Saadia Gardezi. Pakistan Policy Group 2012. 

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