The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2018 released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows decrease of a fifth in the countrywide cultivation of opium compared to the previous years. The 263,000 hectares under the cultivation in Afghanistan this year was still the second largest score for Afghanistan since the UNODC began systematic monitoring in 1994. Also, poppy weeding and harvesting still provided the equivalent of 345,000 full- time jobs into the country’s widely impoverished rural areas. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at where the decrease has taken the place and the main reasons behind it. The United States and its international allies have pursued various counter-narcotics approaches, centred mainly on eradication and interdiction, since 2001. Here a picture of government-led eradication in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah in 2015. The Afghan government’s erdication efforts have been negligible since 2014. Only 3,760 of 183,000 hectares planted with opium poppy have been eradicated in 2015. Credit: Andrew Quilty, 2015.
In 2018, Afghanistan cultivated 65,000 fewer hectares of opium poppy than in the previous year (see here). The total area under opium poppy cultivation decreased to 263,000 hectares in 2018, from 328,000 hectares in 2017, when more opium was grown and more opium paste produced in Afghanistan than in any year since the UNODC began monitoring in 1994 (see AAN previous analysis here). This year’s decrease, however, was not particularly significant. Moreover, poppy cultivation was as widespread as ever. As in 2017, 24 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces grew opium poppy, (1) three up from 2016. The area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2018 was still the second largest since 1994.
The decline in cultivation was mainly caused by the drought which is severely affecting the west and the north of the country – in the words of locals from the northwest, it is the worst drought they can remember (see previous AAN analysis here). Consequently, opium poppy cultivation decreased by 24,000 hectares in the northern region (or 56 per cent compared to last year’s levels) and by 23,000 hectares (or 43 per cent compared by last year’s levels) in the western region. In Badghis province, which belongs (in UNODC’s categorisation) to the western region and had seen a gradual increase in poppy cultivation in the last several years, cultivation decreased by 30 per cent this year (see this AAN analysis). A small decrease was also recorded in the south of the country where opium poppy was grown on some 15,000 fewer hectares than last year. However, the decrease in the south, the UNODC said, was mainly to do with a decrease in the price of dry opium at last year’s harvest time. David Mansfield, the veteran British expert on Afghanistan’s opium economy, speaking before the release of the UNODC figures:
Helmand was touch and go on levels of cultivation… There were signs of increases in the desert area (and much better yields) but it was not completely clear what would happen in the Canal [the irrigated part of central Helmand]. Ultimately, fighting certainly seemed to lead to some rather large areas of abandoned land.
Opium production, opium yields – also down
The UNODC estimated that the potential opium production would be 6,400 tons in 2018. This is a decrease of 29 per cent from 2017 when Afghanistan produced more opium paste than ever before, an estimated 9,000 metric tons, compared to 4,800 metric tons in 2016 (see here).
According to the UNDOC, the decrease in production was mainly due to decreases in the area under opium poppy cultivation. However, more modest yields also contributed to the general reduction. This year’s average yield was 24.4 kilogrammes per hectare, as compared to 27.3 kg/ha kilogrammes per hectare in 2017. Additionally, the UNODC said, yields in some regions decreased much more substantially than others – by 47 per cent in the central region, 29 per cent in the eastern region and 19 per cent in the northern region. Yields remained relatively stable in the west and the north-east and in the south, which accounts for over two-thirds of the entire national production of opium, yields decreased by just eight per cent and had a relatively minor impact on the harvest there.
Helmand has also seen a continuing trend of farmers investing in advanced agricultural methods, including solar panels for powering irrigation pumps and specific fertilisers and pesticides. These have allowed Helmandi farmers to grow opium profitably, even under unfavourable conditions. This was also shown in two recent Mansfield studies published by AREU (in 2017 and 2018).
Decrease in prices
According to the UNODC, the farm-gate price of dry opium at harvest time fell to 94 US dollars per kilogramme. This, UNODC said, was the lowest price (after adjusting for inflation) of opium at harvest time since 2004. The average price of opium in 2017 at the time of harvest was 131 USD/kg, down by 14 per cent from 152 USD/kg in 2016. This means that, within two years, the price of dry opium has dropped by more than one-third.
The decrease in farm-gate prices resulted in a 56 per cent reduction in the farm-gate value of the total opium harvest in 2018; estimated at 604 million US dollars this year, it equates to only three per cent of the country’s GDP (based on a 2.4 percent growth rate in 2018, the World Bank is projecting an end or 2018 GDP of 1,450 billion Afghanis or 19.93 billion US dollars). The estimated farm-gate value in 2017 was equivalent to roughly seven per cent of Afghanistan’s estimated GDP, or around 1.4 billion USD, (see also this AAN analysis about the opium economy here). That year, the farm-gate value of the crop increased by 55 per cent compared to 2016 values because of the sheer volume of production, ie the unprecedented amount of opium poppy cultivated and subsequently opium paste produced.
What about eradication?
Government-led eradication remains negligible; in 2018 only 406 hectares of opium poppy were eradicated, out of a total of 263,000 hectares in four provinces, compared to 750 hectares in 14 provinces in 2017. (355 hectares of opium poppy were eradicated in seven provinces in 2016.)
Nevertheless, the US air campaign against drug-related targets which began on 19 November 2017 (see AAN analysis here; see also this paper by Mansfield), has continued in 2018. The Wall Street Journal reported in August this year that US airstrikes had hit about 200 drug-related targets, with nearly half of them in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. “The air campaign,” said the Journal, “has wiped out about 46 million USD in Taleban revenue.” Mansfield, however, challenged this, arguing that “heroin profits and taxes are not as large as U.S. forces estimate and bombing drug labs will have a negligible effect on Taliban revenues.” (See Mansfield’s quote in the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction – SIGAR latest report, p 86 here). Mansfield in his AREU October 2018 paper, “Stirring Up the Hornet’s Nest” wrote:
Farmers in Helmand view this campaign quite differently and see it as further evidence of a campaign of violence waged against them. They do not recognise the claims of “a narco-insurgency,” or the suggestion that the drugs business is somehow the insurgency’s primary objective, as suggested by a US special operations commander in Afghanistan.
According to SIGAR’s latest report, the United States has committed an average of more than 1.5 million USD a day to help the Afghan government combat narcotics between 2002 and September 2018.
As of 30 September 2018, U.S. counternarcotics-related appropriations for that purpose had reached 8.88 billion US Dollars. Despite massive expenditures for programs including poppy-crop eradication, drug seizures and interdictions, alternative-livelihood support, aviation support, and incentives for provincial governments the drug trade remains entrenched in Afghanistan, and is growing.
Although the area under cultivation decreased and Afghanistan produced less opium this year, the 2018 levels it is only a decrease on scores for 2017 which were the highest since 1994. The drought severely affected production and yields in the north and west and in the country’s opium production powerhouse, Helmand, lower prices last year appears to have reduced the incentive for some farmers to sow poppy this year. As to counter-narcotics strategies, those by the government were symbolic only and the US-led counter-narcotics air campaign, according to Mansfield, has not dented production, but has ‘stirred up a hornet’s nest. “Farmers were quick to blame the lab strikes” for the decrease in prices, he said. In reality, there were other factors at work dampening demand and prices, he said, “Continued high levels of production and the devaluation of the [Iranian] tomanis leading to a lot of market uncertainty and a hesitancy amongst cross-border traders.”
The most worrying outcome of this year’s decrease in opium prices for the rest of the world is that it may trigger a decrease in heroin prices on the world’s illegal markets. An abundance of high-quality, low-cost heroin could result in cheap heroin on the streets and, globally, more people using the drug.
(1) A province is given a poppy-free status if fewer than 100 hectares of opium are grown there. This year, Nuristan regained its poppy-free status, which it had between 2006 and 2016 and lost in 2017. Takhar lost its previous poppy-free status, which it had held since 2008.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020