Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

A Low-Risk Crop in a High-Risk Environment: Annual opium survey shows Afghan poppy cultivation at a record high

Jelena Bjelica 9 min

More opium was grown and more opium paste produced in Afghanistan in 2017 than in any year since the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) began monitoring in 1994. The UNODC’s annual Afghanistan Opium Survey, released today, has shown that 328,000 hectares of land were used to grow poppy this year, an increase of almost a half on the previous record year (2014). Opium poppy cultivation has also expanded to more provinces which were previously poppy-free. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica has been looking at the survey.

Poppy field in Helmand. Photo: AAN StaffPoppy field in Helmand. Photo: AAN Staff

The statistics of increase

The hike in poppy cultivation in 2017, an increase of 104,000 hectares, compared to the previous high of 224,000 hectares in 2014 (see here), was startling. Afghanistan produced more opium paste than ever before, some 9,000 metric tons according to the latest UNODC estimate (as compared to 4,800 metric tons in 2016; full text here). The increase in production, although mainly a result of the increase in area under opium poppy cultivation, was also driven by a slightly better harvest (average yield per hectare was given as 27.3 kg/ha, a 15 per cent increase from 2016). As a result of  the increased supply, the good yields brought more cash to farmers, despite the price of opium dropping in all regions at harvest-time (in the south prices though only dropped in the months after the harvest), in response to the increased supply. The average price of fresh opium in 2017 at the time of harvest was 131 US dollars/kg, down 14 per cent, from 152 USD/kg in 2016. Nevertheless, even after that harvest time drop in prices, the farm-gate value of the crop increased by 55 per cent in 2017, as compared to 2016 (because of the sheer volume of production). The farm gate value estimate 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).

Opium cultivation also expanded to new provinces in 2017 (more on this below), while government-led eradication was still negligible, although there was more than in 2016 (355 hectares of opium poppy were eradicated in seven provinces in 2016, compared to 750 hectares in 14 provinces, this year).

Where was opium poppy cultivated in 2017?

According to the UNODC report, most cultivation (60 per cent) took place in the south of the country. Strong increases were also observed in other major poppy-cultivating provinces:

In Helmand province alone, cultivation increased by 63,700 hectares (+79 per cent) which accounted for about half of the total national increase. Strong increases were observed also in Balkh (+10,000 hectares or almost five times more than in 2016), Kandahar (+7,500 hectares or +37 per cent), Nimroz (+6,200 hectares or +116 per cent), and Uruzgan (+6,000 hectares or +39 per cent).

Cultivation also expanded to provinces where opium has not been grown for a number of years. This includes Ghazni which had no poppy cultivation since 1995 and Samangan and Nuristan where this was the case since 2007; all three now feature in the Opium Survey. This means that in 2017, 24 out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan grew poppy, compared with 21 opium-growing provinces in 2016.

In the northern region (Baghlan, Balkh, Bamyan, (1) Faryab, Jawzjan, Samangan and Sar-e Pul), the UNODC noted a rapid expansion of opium poppy cultivation since 2014. “In 2014, a total of 574 hectares was cultivated in three out of seven provinces (Baghlan, Faryab and Sar-e Pul),” said the report. “In 2017, only one province remained poppy-free (Bamyan) and some 43,000 hectares were cultivated in the other six provinces.” This estimate for the northern region, however, includes the major poppy-cultivating Ghormach district, now in Faryab province, but until 2016 part of Badghis province, in UNODC terms, in the ‘western region’; this makes comparability with previous years for the northern region of limited value. (2)

UNODC said there were a variety of reasons for the rise and spread of poppy cultivation, including political instability, lack of government control and government corruption, insecurity, lack of assured access to physical and economic markets for farmers to sell alternative products, limited alternative opportunities for them for social and economic development and possibly, the lower engagement of the international aid community country-wide. In this context, it is worth looking at Helmand, a spectacular example of opium production, in more detail.

The Helmand example

In Helmand, the increase in poppy cultivation was so momentous that a third of the arable land was dedicated to opium poppy in 2017, compared to 20 per cent in 2016. This sharp increase, according to the UNODC report, was trigged by several factors, including good yields in 2015 and 2016 and greater labour availability. “In the past years,” its report said, “there have been reports of a lack of workers, caused by the on-going fights within Helmand.” Growing poppy is labour intensive with large number of skilled labourers coming to Helmand from other provinces and even from neighbouring countries for seasonal work. In past years, said UNODC, insecurity “may have led opium poppy farmers to restrict their investments in opium poppy cultivation to avoid the risk of unharvested fields.” In 2017, however, it said that “the perception of greater stability might have led to better availability of cheaper labour for harvesting.”

UNODC does not elaborate on what it means by ‘greater stability’. Possibly it refers to the situation that, after the Taleban took control of much of the province in 2015 and 2016 (see AAN reporting here and here), fighting has recently concentrated around the provincial capital of Lashkargah and some district centres, mainly nearby and along the main Kandahar-Heart highway, leaving most other rural areas, now behind Taleban ‘frontlines’, uncontested (see some media reports herehere and here).

Helmand has also seen a continuing trend of farmers investing in advanced agricultural methods, including solar panels for powering irrigation pumps and specific fertilizers and pesticides. These have allowed Helmandi farmers to grow opium profitably, even under unfavourable conditions. This was also shown in the latest AREU study by Afghan opium expert, David Mansfield who finds other reasons for the sharp increase in cultivation. Having studied the opium ban inside the ‘Helmand Food Zone’ (HFZ) – an area in canal-irrigated central Helmand where the United Kingdom and United States’ governments funded a project to the tune of 12 to 18 millions USD per year between 2008 and 2018 aimed at rapidly and significantly reducing opium poppy cultivation –, Mansfield observed that while opium cultivation did decrease in the zone, the rise in cultivation in former desert areas had begun to outweigh this reduction as early as 2011.

Most importantly the ban on opium in the canal command area imposed by the HFZ, along with the focus on replacing poppy with wheat, created a mobile labour force skilled in poppy cultivation in search of a livelihood and a place to live. While farmers had already begun to settle the former desert lands north of the Boghra [canal] prior to the HFZ, rates of settlement and the intensity of poppy cultivation both increased following the imposition of the ban in the canal command area.

He further elaborated that:

Once this process of settlement began and households who had previously been landless in the canal command area saw the opportunity to purchase land, build a home and accumulate assets using capital from intensive opium poppy cultivation north of the Boghra, there was going to be little to persuade them to leave. Moreover, the success of these settlers served as an example to others and provided a valuable support network for those that wished to follow.

The British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and then governor Gulab Mangal who were behind the HFZ thought the elimination of poppy would “symbolise the extension of government writ… and serve to reduce funding for the Taliban who the… UNODC claimed earned the equivalent of ten percent of the farm-gate value of the opium crop.” Mansfield maps the unintended consequences of the project and how the opium ban and associated decline in the welfare of some farmers in the food zone drove the insurgency as they “fuelled the population’s antipathy to the Afghan state, and thereby hastened the collapse of the government in Helmand following the departure of US and UK military forces in the summer of 2014.” (3) He pointed out that this was “especially true of those areas and populations who did not have a viable alternative to opium production.” The anti-government sentiment in these areas, according to Mansfield, has been driven by the government’s lack of understanding of the ‘rural way of life’.

In 2017 the anti-government sentiment in these areas has been further exacerbated by the ANDSF [Afghan National and Defence Security Forces] campaign to retake parts of the districts of Lashkar Gah and Nad e Ali. The timing of this campaign, coinciding with the opium poppy harvest – resulting in both losses of crop and life – as well as the belief that a return of government forces would lead to the return of an opium ban, means the government is largely unwelcome. Disrupting the harvest of any crop – particularly one as input intensive as opium – was always going to lead to the accusation that the government had little understanding of the rural population and its way of life.

“[M]uch greater thought needs to be given to how counterinsurgency and counternarcotic efforts can be de-conflicted,” Mansfield concludes.

Local and global repercussions of the 2017 opium harvest

As AAN previously reported, millions of Afghans rely directly or indirectly on illicit incomes from opiates, as well as its auxiliary products for their economic and social survival. Some estimates, like this one by the Afghan government, put their number at three million. This year’s record cultivation may have led to an increase. Those benefiting range from the landless poor to the well-connected rich (and both Taleban and government-related figures). For the poorest, the expansion of labour-intensive opium production may feel like a godsend. The relationship between opium cultivation and insecurity – that it is a dependable crop especially during conflict – has long been recognised (see this AAN thematic paper on Afghanistan’s drug career). Opium is a low risk crop in a high risk environment and therefore, at a time of insurgency, is viewed by many farmers as the crop of choice. (4)

However, as the UNODC has warned, 2017’s record level of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan will “create multiple challenges for the country.” This and the significant level of illicit trafficking of opiates, it pointed out, will probably further fuel instability and insurgency and increase funding to terrorist groups in Afghanistan (see AAN analysis on the relationship between the Taleban and drug smugglers in border areas here. That it funds both insurgency and criminal and corrupt elements in the government, including some of those planning to run for election, is also well-known.

The UNODC also highlighted the environmental and societal impact the unprecedented levels of cultivation would have on the country:

The expanding illicit economy, that in many provinces has already permeated the rural society to the extent that many communities have become dependent on the income from opium poppy, will further constrain the development of the licit economy and potentially further fuel corruption. The increased levels of opium poppy cultivation also have the potential to exacerbate already existing environmental damage created by the overexploitation of the land for opium, and the increased availability of opium and heroin in the country might further raise the social and economic costs associated with the consumption of opiates for drug users, their families, and for society in general.

Afghanistan’ neighbours and the many other countries that are on the transit routes or destinations of Afghan opiates will also feel the impact of this year’s harvest. Good yields will permit Afghanistan’s narco-networks “to supply increased amounts of high quality, low-cost heroin to consumer markets across the world,” which would likely “increase consumption and its related harms.” To put it simply, in 2018, there will be more illegal opium and heroin in the world than ever seen before. Although, it may be too early to predict whether and by how much heroin prices on streets of Europe and beyond could fall, it is quite possible that price reductions could spur global heroin consumption. Presumably, this much opium and heroin will also spur local consumption; according to the 2015 Afghanistan National Drug Use Survey, between 2.5 and 2.9 million Afghans are believed to use drugs and some 1.5 million Afghans are believed to be regular drug users (see also this AAN analysis).

Whether considering drug addiction at home or abroad, the prospect of having fair elections with a sprawling drugs economy as a source of funding, the chances for getting rid off corrupt elements in government or disrupting Taleban funding, Afghanistan’s 2017 bumper harvest of opium is bad news. What to do about the country’s poppy cultivation – short of moving to a peaceful, stable Afghanistan ­– continues to be, however, not clear at all.


Edited by Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig



(1) UNODC puts Bamyan into the northern region, although it usually is counted as part of the Central Highlands or the larger central region.

(2) The administrative tussle over to which province Ghormach belongs dates back at least to 2007, when it was reportedly transferred temporarily to Faryab province, although the district historically has belonged to Badghis province. Its administrative transfer had been pushed by ISAF, as the Spanish troops based in Badghis’s provincial centre saw themselves unable to reach the faraway district, so the Norwegians based in Faryab took control of it. The transfer, however, was never acknowledged by Faryab’s provincial governor, who preferred to keep his province opium poppy free in order to receive money from the Good Performance Initiative funding which has been provided by the US government through the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, to provinces that cultivated none or less that 100 hectares of opium poppy (see AAN analysis about Badghis province and administrative issues concerning Ghormach district here).

The comparability of the totals of 2016 and 2017 in the northern region is limited due to this administrative altercation of Ghormach district, UNODC warned.

(3) US troops are back by now, although in lower numbers (see for example here).

(4) Even in easier times, opium does not always behave according to standard market rules of supply and demand. Like other crops, it can be sold to provide an income, but when dried, it stores for five to seven years without losing all its value, so it also functions as capital and savings. Even during wartime, the market for opium still functions. Farmers who grow licit crops have to get them to market, risking their year’s income travelling through frontlines and checkpoints. If they grow opium, the buyers come to them. It is a lot safer.


drugs opium poppy