Economy & Development

Afghanistan’s Fluctuating Poppy Production: More Than a Poverty Problem


Afghanistan’s area of poppy cultivation has increased by 7 per cent compared to the last year and more provinces cultivate poppy than then. This is the gist of annual opium survey for the country for 2012. There are no predictions about how many (thousands of) tons this will be. And the publishers – the UN and the government in Kabul – have changed their take on the drivers of poppy cultivation, away from poverty only. Doris Buddenberg(*) looks at why this is the case, at the data in general and interprets the survey’s interpretations.

Poppies are popping up again all over Afghanistan. They have contributed to the livelihoods of hundreds of functionaries, consultants, journalists and experts (including myself) as well as for farmers, transporters, laboratory owners, financiers and law enforcement personnel on both sides of the legal-illegal divide.
The land area actually cultivated under poppy is assessed twice a year by the Ministry of Counter Narcotics of the Government of Afghanistan (MCN) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Two publications result: the risk assessment early in the year and the full Afghanistan Opium Survey late in the year.

The 2012 risk assessment by UNODC/MCN, issued in April this year, has lead – as every year – to the re-discussion of the opiate(1) issue in Afghanistan. This is also a good occasion for AAN to reflect on some of the questions arising from the cultivation of opium poppy. In this commentary, the risk assessment and questions related to the data collection will be addressed followed by revisiting one principle question: the oft discussed reasons for poppy cultivation.

The methodology of data collection and analysis by UNODC/MCN can hardly be improved, given the combination of extensive ground surveys with the analysis of satellite images. Since 2002 UNODC has used satellite images to assess the extent of poppy cultivation. Additionally, yield figures are collected to estimate overall production. High-resolution satellite images are acquired for more than 100 sample locations in most provinces. All locations are covered at two different growth stages: the flowering or capsule stage and after the lancing of the capsules. Provinces not covered by the satellite images are visited by surveyors in sampled villages. A group of surveyors usually comprising of more than 50 persons collects so-called ground truth reference data to support the satellite image interpretation. Additionally, more than 100 surveyors visit around 1,500 villages to collect data on socio-economic indicators.

2003 was the last year in which a margin of error was indicated in the report. For the cultivation area, a margin of +/- 10% was given for that year. This margin will vary from year to year, but given the current larger coverage, an improved sampling methodology as well as better satellite images, the margin will likely be lower for all subsequent years.

Based on the experience of MCN and UNODC in this field, the data from the only survey of Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation can be considered reliable. To summarize the data for the 2012 Risk Assessment: the total area under poppy cultivation has increased by 7 per cent and more provinces cultivate poppy than last year, namely 18 in all. In high-cultivation areas such as Helmand, there is no change. Both in the western provinces (Farah, Herat, Ghor and Nimroz) and the eastern provinces (Nangarhar, Kunar and Kapisa) slight increases are reported. There was a slight decrease in cultivation in Kandahar province but great expectations are out of place, since the decrease is marginal and Kandahar produces opium on 27.213 ha (more than double the area cultivated in 2005 or 2006). After Helmand, Kandahar remains the second highest poppy cultivation province. In the northwest, Badakhshan is said to have increased its cultivation by 55 per cent. However, given that only 1,700 ha are predicted for this year (up from 1,100 ha last year), the overall area under cultivation remains small compared to provinces in the south.

The survey indicates only the cultivated area; no forecasts of the expected tonnage of opium for 2012 are made. That is prudent, since output depends on yield which in turn depends on factors such as climatic conditions, access to water and the absence of plant diseases. Rumours and the first media articles on plant diseases in the south are appearing, the latter with the Afghan minister in charge, Zarar Ahmad Moqbel Osmani, as a source, which could affect the overall output.

The survey mentions that an increasing number of provinces have lost their ‘poppy-free status’. A province is indicated as ‘poppy-free’ when there are less than 100 ha of poppy cultivation. This status was introduced by UNODC around eight years ago.(2) The idea was that if donors were encouraged to increase assistance for agriculture or development support in these provinces, this could help reduce poppy cultivation in other provinces as well. However, donors did not respond to this approach. Consequently the provinces fluctuated rather freely between being ‘poppy-free’ and re-starting cultivation on areas larger than 100 ha. The re-emergence of poppy cultivation in a number of temporarily ‘poppy-free’ provinces indicates that farmers in all provinces are ready to cultivate opium poppy again, given the right incentives and adequate linkages to the network of traders. Additionally, the methodology of the survey will not show up statistically insignificant variations.

To put the issue of these swathes of land cultivated with poppy into context: Afghanistan’s arable land amounts to about 12 per cent of its overall land area. Of these 12 per cent (approx. 78,540 square kilometres), an estimated 1,310 square kilometres are cultivated with poppy, amounting to less than 0.2 per cent of the total arable land.(3) This 0.2 per cent forms the basis of heated discussions and attempts to control poppy cultivation among the donors.

Following the assessments, the analyses in the UNODC reports usually include a list of reasons supposedly explaining the levels of poppy cultivation. Three reasons are discussed: 1) poverty, 2) insecurity and 3) lack of agricultural assistance. For a long time, poverty was assumed to be the main reason but it is by now clear that the correlation between poverty and opium does not hold. There is no doubt that poverty is one of the reasons for cultivating poppy. But the weight and importance of this reason remains in doubt. Reliable national data on household income from agriculture is still elusive. Patterns of landownership, access to land and water and land use vary substantially across the country and off-farm sources of income, including remittances, are often underestimated.(4)

According to the assessment and last year’s figures, opium production is concentrated in four provinces: Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Farah, which together account for 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium production. Interestingly, some of these provinces arecounted among the richer provinces of the country, such as Helmand, whereas others, such as Uruzgan and Farah, count as poor. There are also provinces that do not grow poppy (such as Sar-e Pul and Jawzjan) where many farmers are very poor, while in rich provinces, such as Helmand, poppy is grown in abundance.

How varied the data is and has to be looked at can also be seen when national averages compare with provincial ones, where available. On average, it is estimated that some 10 per cent of households cultivate poppy nationally. But in Uruzgan and Helmand, 82 and 67 per cent of households respectively produce opium.

As a result, the correlation between poverty and opium needs to be taken as tenuous and it is not surprising that in the current UNODC/MCN risk assessment, poverty is no longer included among the main reasons for cultivating poppy.

The recent UNODC report survey has a different emphasis and states:

‘Confirming the findings of the 2011 Afghanistan Opium Survey, the Risk Assessment of this year indicated the strong association between insecurity, lack of agricultural assistance and opium cultivation.’ 

These ‘associations’ need a closer look.

The supposed link between insecurity and poppy cultivation elicits interest from the international community because of the poppy economy’s potential for funding the insurgents. The oft-repeated argument is that the Taleban are funding themselves mainly via the opium trade. Undoubtedly they do benefit, as do local farmers, transporters, local and national police as well as government personnel from the local level up to the highest levels. But little data has been collected on any of the distribution aspects of the opium trade; thus any statements as to how much of the funds is going to insurgents remain speculative and are, increasingly, propaganda.

In 2011, the farm-gate value of the Afghan opium was estimated by UNODC/MCN at USD 1.4 billion, simply calculated on the basis of regularly collected price data for opium in all provinces. The amount of opium produced in kilograms multiplied by the current average price level per kg will indicate the farm-gate value of the crop. Further refinement of the calculation of the farm-gate price includes time-lags in buying or selling the crop. How much the Taleban actually receive of the farm-gate value is anybody’s guess.

In the Reuters article already quoted, a figure of USD 100 million is mentioned. This would amount to less than 10 per cent of the estimated farm-gate value and would thus correspond to a tax levied on any agricultural product in areas under Taleban control. However, much higher estimates abound, like in a document published by the US Congress:

‘The Taliban’s principal and most lucrative source of income in Afghanistan is its control of the opium trade. The Taliban have long profited off of the ten per cent ushr tax levied on opium farmers, an additional tax on the traffickers, and a per-kilogram transit tariff charged to the truckers who transport the product. In recent years, however, they have been “taking a page from the warlords’ playbook,” and regional and local Taliban commanders have been demanding “protection money from the drug traffickers who smuggle goods through their territory.’

2007 analysis by the Jamestown Foundation described ‘arrangements whereby drug traffickers provide money, vehicles and subsistence to Taliban units in return for protection.’ In addition, at even higher Taleban command levels, ‘senior leadership in Quetta are paid regular instalments from narcotics kingpins as a general fee for operating in Taliban controlled areas. Through these various forms of taxation and extortion, the Taliban have been estimated to earn nearly $300 million a year from the opium trade.”

As said, these data remain speculation. What is based on harder facts is an assessment of the export value of Afghan opium, calculated on the basis of opiate prices across the borders. The sale of opiates across the borders of Afghanistan is likely to amount to USD 2-3 billion annually. These funds remain in the hands of the large traders, and their backers, whose investments largely lie outside Afghanistan.

A further assumption that seems to underlie the reasoning is that it is the farmer who decides whether to grow poppy or not, and that his household should be the focus of analysis and investment. While the farming household is undoubtedly one deciding agent, an individual farmer in a poor non-poppy-cultivating province suddenly deciding to grow poppy, is a very improbable scenario. However, he will have no access to the trading networks that support opium production. It is these trading networks with their access and control of credit, transport, storage and heroin laboratories that remain the major decision makers. In addition, since poppy cultivation draws the attention of the international community, local powerbrokers need to be convinced that it is profitable and that they will share in the profit. These factors cast doubt on whether it is actually at the level of the farmer where the crucial decisions are made and can be influenced.

It is rather the network of traders, transporters, converters (lab owners), the opportunities they see and the pressures they are under, that determine whether cultivation moves to other provinces, or even within provinces. These networks work with long established routes and contacts, and the upper echelon of the trading lies in the hands of clans and businessmen. These powerbrokers are the main decision makers. Their marketing strategies and their reasons for shifting cultivation or not, for increasing pressure to cultivate or not, have never been investigated. Their enduring success and profits, however, are beyond doubt.

A third reason for cultivating poppy is said to be agricultural assistance or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Agricultural assistance remains a sad story throughout Afghanistan. Limited data are available on agricultural assistance or on the success or failure of the limited agricultural support that has been provided. But there is one telling indicator: Overall, Afghanistan remains food insecure, and if the core government budget 2011/12 by sectors – it seems agricultural assistance is not a priority, neither for the government nor for the international community which appears to be maximising funds spent on security.

The narcotics issue skews the discussion further, with much of the debate on agricultural assistance focusing on whether it should be directed at poppy growing areas to reduce cultivation or whether it should be directed to non-poppy areas to support and recompense farmers there. Given that only a very limited amount of agricultural land is utilized for poppy, this seems an extraordinary focus on 0.2 per cent of arable land.

To exemplify the targeting of agricultural assistance to support foreign affairs objectives: from 2002 to date, USAID has allocated about USD 1.4 billion for agricultural programmes. In 2005, the USAID programme shifted its objective from food security to counternarcotics-related agriculture. In 2009, the focus shifted again, this time to counterinsurgency to provide alternatives to drug- or insurgency-related activities.

A specific example is also the US-led Food Zone programme in Helmand, which has invested some USD 56 million in agriculture in the last few years. This programme is said to be responsible for the reduction in poppy cultivation since the substantial drop in 2009, a decrease that has been maintained since then. Whether it really was the programme – and not changes in the price of opium, previous large stocks accumulated with the subsequent reduced need for cultivation, high price of wheat, plant diseases etc. that reduced the area under cultivation – remains open to debate. That the Food Zone programme was however targeted at cutting the funds going to the Taleban or any other suspected insurgent emerges through the reasons given for the need to continue funding of the programme: undercutting funds going to insurgents. What remains dubious is the implementation of the programme, its actual impact and its prospects for sustainability. A plateau in poppy cultivation had been reached in Helmand since 2009, but has not been reduced further since and the province maintains its status as the main producer of opium in Afghanistan. That qualifies as a success for a USD 56 million programme?

Over the last ten years, opium cultivation has been high, though fluctuating, and Afghanistan’s opium industry continues to meet most of the world’s demand for opiates. Why an increase happens in one province while there is a decline in another might be interesting from a micro-historical point of view. The overall statistics for Afghanistan show that opium is deeply entrenched throughout Afghanistan’s economy.

A second blog that will discuss main proposals of how to deal with Afghanistan’s poppy and opium output will follow.

(*) Doris Buddenberg had been UNODC’s country representative in Afghanistan from 2004-06, has worked for the organisation from 1996 to 2010 and before for many more years as a consultant for diverse UN and other international organisations on drug-related issues. She is a member of the AAN Advisory Board and lives in Berlin.

(1) Opium and its derivates, like heroin.

(2) See an earlier AAN discussion of the issue, with reference to provinces than with German troops, here. Already then, AREU had recommended to scrap ‘the notion of “poppy free” […] as an indicator of success in its July 2011 paper ‘Opium Poppy Strikes Back’.

(3) Other publications, like Adam Pain and Jacky Sutton (eds.):Reconstructing Agriculture in Afghanistan, FAO 2007, 61 and Byrd, W. and Ward, C., Drugs and Development in Afghanistan. Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, Social Development Paper, 18, World Bank 2004, Washington DC, mention percentages of 2.9 or 3.0. This seems to be related to the fact that not arable land in general but actually cultivated land is taken as the basis for calculation. Since reliable data on land use is not available and estimates vary from year to year, the differences in the estimates seem rather academic since the land under poppy remains very limited in comparison to other crops.

(4) See: Adam Pain and Jacky Sutton (eds.), Reconstructing Agriculture in Afghanistan, FAO 2007, 99.

(5) For a critique of the FZ programme see also this Registan blog.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development