Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

New World Drug Report: Opium production in Afghanistan remained the same in 2019

Jelena Bjelica 8 min

The United Nations Drugs and Crime Office’s (UNODC) World Drug Report, released today, shows a decrease in the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan in 2019 following price falls after the bumper years in 2017 and 2018. However, in 2019 when weather conditions were optimal for growing poppy and plant disease absent, yields were high. Overall, that meant production figures were the same as in 2018. With almost no eradication and diminishing alternative livelihoods initiatives, government actions had almost no effect on illicit farming. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica, who has been taking a closer look at UNODC’s findings, notes that this is the first year since 1994 that UNODC did not release its findings in an annual opium survey and says the government is suspected of having blocked publication. 

Mohammad Omar's poor poppy crop in Nad Ali district, Helmand Province. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2015.

2019 opium trends in Afghanistan 

In 2019, Afghan farmers planted opium poppy on 163,000 hectares of land. This is 38 per cent less than in 2018 when 263,000 hectares were planted, according to the United Nations Drugs and Crime Office (UNODC). The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates released in February 2020 show similar results; opium poppy was planted on 160,000 hectares, a decrease of 28 percent from 221,000 in 2018 (see media report here and here). For a second year in a row, then both estimates have shown a decrease in opium poppy cultivation (see AAN report about the 2018 opium harvest here). This is a decrease from an all-time high: in 2017, Afghan farmers grew more opium poppy and produced more opium gum than in any year since 1994, when UNODC began monitoring cultivation trends (see AAN report about the 2017 opium harvest here).

In 2019, the area under cultivation was the lowest recorded since 2013. Nevertheless, the 2019 harvest was more productive compared to previous years. Although opium poppy was planted on 80,000 fewer hectares, the 2019 harvest yielded 6,400 metric tons of opium, the same as in 2018 (see the Table 1 for the comparative production estimates of the UNODC and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy). In 2019, yields were good because of the perfect timing of rainfall in the spring, low temperatures during harvest time (which slowed down the drying of seed capsules) and the absence of plant disease. These factors contributed to a yield increase of 60 per cent on average, countrywide.

In previous years, farmers, especially in the all-important south-western region, typically reported disease as the main reason for low to moderate yields. This region, also known as Greater Kandahar, includes Helmand province which, were it a separate country, would be the largest opium producer worldwide. In 2019, Greater Kandahar produced 4,920 metric tons of opium, representing more than two-thirds of this year’s total opium production nationwide. In the southern region (Loya Paktia and Ghazni), the harvest doubled compared to 2018. 

It is significant that UNODC has not released its regular opium survey for 2019, which would normally have been released in November of that year. When AAN contacted UNODC in February to find out why the survey had not been published, UNODC country director Mark Colhoun said the “the analysis/interpretation of data is still ongoing and therefore the document hasn’t been released.” The survey is a result of joint work between the UNODC and Afghan government. In January 2019, President Ashraf Ghani closed the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and moved responsibility for the opium survey to the National Statistic and Information Authority (NSIA) and this may have had an impact on the working relationship between UNODC and its Afghan counterpart. Possibly also, it led to disagreement over the findings in the survey, which, frankly, do not reflect well on the government. It seems now that UNODC has decided to release its findings about opium cultivation and production trends and counter-narcotics actions by the government in its 2020 World Drug Report instead. This is its annual publication looking at drug trends worldwide. 

Table 1. A comparison of UNODC and the US estimates of Afghan opium production
(2001 to 2019). Table by AAN.  

A closer look at the decrease in opium cultivation 

All the main opium poppy-growing provinces, reported UNODC, saw significant decreases in the amount of land growing poppy in 2019. In Nangarhar, this decreased by 82 per cent, Nimroz by 78 per cent, Kandahar by 40 per cent, Uruzgan by 38 per cent, Farah by 35 per cent and Helmand by 34 per cent. On average, this reduction of 38 per cent (1) can be attributed mainly to developments in the opium market, UNODC found. Following two years of very high levels of production, the average farm-gate price per kilogramme of fresh opium fell to 52 USD in 2019 from 76 USD in 2018. A similar pattern was seen in the late 2000s, when in 2009, prices of fresh opium dropped to 48 USD per kilogramme after three years of high yields and a flooded market (see table 2). In 2019, a kilogramme of dry opium was one dollar cheaper than in 2009. The lower price of opium in 2019 inevitably resulted in less income for farmers. UNODC estimated the 2019 total farm-gate value as 404 million USD, a decrease of 33 per cent from its 2018 value. 

Table 2: Opium production and prices (2001 to 2019). Table by AAN. 

David Mansfield, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE), who has spent more than two decades doing fieldwork in Afghanistan, sees the 2019 fall in opium poppy cultivation as “evidence of market correction, a function of years of overproduction and falling prices.” In general, he said opium prices have been on a downward trajectory since June 2016:

As might be expected the most precipitous fall in prices occurred in the summer of 2017 following a growing season that produced an unprecedented 328,000 hectares of opium poppy. Amidst this overall downward trend in prices associated with overproduction, farmers and traders have also experienced changes in the security situation and the market for opiates. The devaluation of the Iranian rial, following the imposition of US sanctions in April 2018, led to a more cautious market in the southwest, with farmers complaining that opium (and methamphetamine) traders feared being left holding Iranian currency, and the risk that the rial would further lose value against the dollar. To better manage this risk, there are growing reports of traders looking to fix opium prices against the prevailing exchange rate between the US dollar and the rial.

However, Mansfield puts almost no decrease in cultivation down to the US airstrike campaign to target “Taliban financial networks and revenue streams,” as the US forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A) put it (the Afghan airforce also conducted strikes). Those airstrikes on drug processing facilities, which used expanded (and, in terms of the Laws of War, controversial; see footnote 2) authorities provided under President Trump’s South Asia strategy (see AAN reporting hereand LSE’s impact forensic assessment of the campaign), began in November 2017 and were all but abandoned by September 2018. (2) Mansfield said there was little to suggest that the USFOR-A campaign had any downward effect on the price of opium.

This should not be of surprise given the large number of labs in Afghanistan and the speed that they can be replaced (between three to four days). Consequently, USFOR-A’s reports of the destruction of 200 labs over the course of one year would not have made much of a dent in the capacity to produce opiates. Where some impact can be discerned is with regard to the management of risk. Here, there are reports of traders adopting a more cautious approach in the southwest, working out of their houses rather than in the open in the bazaars, and labs moving to even more remote areas.

In one of the major producer provinces, Nangrahar, the fall in cultivation was unprecedented. The area under cultivation fell by 82 per cent from 17,177 hectares in 2018 to 3,067 hectares in 2019. This was the result of the combined effects of falling prices and conflict. The changing security environment in Nangrahar, said Mansfield, “in particular the efforts of the Afghanistan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) to regain ground from Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Taliban in the southern districts where opium poppy has been concentrated since 2012.”    

Finally, government eradication was not a factor in the decrease in cultivation because eradication efforts have effectively come to a halt. A total of just 21 hectares of opium poppy were eradicated by the provincial governors in only two provinces, Badakhshan (1.2 hectares) and Helmand (19.4 hectares). This represents a decrease of 95 per cent from 2018, when 406 hectares, still a tiny amount compared with earlier years, were eradicated (see table 3). Eradication, as Table 3 shows, has been decreasing since 2012 with significant percentage drops previously. Government-led eradication, as one of the internationally- supported counter-narcotics efforts, has produced mixed results since it was first conducted in 2006. (3) However, a detailed history of US and UK supported eradication efforts in the 2018 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction – SIGAR’s report on counter-narcotics (pp 81-104) showed that eradication, in general, never achieved its  intended results of engendering risk into cultivating poppy and therefore putting farmers off growing poppy/growing poppy in the long term. SIGAR says the efforts failed because they were driven by the availability of funding, the agendas of the institutions providing the funding and the personal decisions of provincial governors and counter-narcotics ministers. 

Table 3. Cultivation and eradication levels 2001 to 2019. Table by AAN.


The 2019 opium findings show that price is still the main signaller for farmers deciding whether and how much opium to grow and the weather and absence or presence of disease is the most important factor in determining yield. The US and Afghan government’s air campaigns had no effect on the country’s opium economy in 2019. Other counter-narcotics policies also had no or only a negligible impact on the industry: government efforts to eradicate opium have practically come to a halt, anyway as have alternative livelihoods programmes (on alternative livelihoods, see for example  David Mansfield’s report “The Helmand Food Zone: The Illusion of Success” from November 2019).  Given the market was in 2019 on a downward trend, greater efforts by the government and its main international supporter might possibly have had more success in capitalising on this and pushing cultivation of poppy down further. In the main, however, UNODC findings show that Afghanistan’s opium markets in 2019 were self-regulating; cultivation levels and farmers’ decision-making, which led to a decrease in areas growing poppy in 2019, has been subject to several factors, none of them had to do with government or international actions or inaction. They include weather conditions, demand, security and price.

The suspicion must be that UNODC did not publish its annual opium survey in 2019 because of the government did not want it to. This could be because of Kabul’s lack of interest in narcotics or because trying to deal with opium seems less important than other pressing issues facing the country – or because the trends seen in 2019 do not reflect well on the government. 

Edited by Kate Clark, Thomas Ruttig and Rachel Reid

(1) The reduction in opium cultivation by regions comprised the following: in the eastern region (Kunar, Laghman, Nangrahar, Nuristan) cultivation was down by 76 per cent; in the southern region (Khost, Paktya, Ghazni, Paktika) by 67 per cent; in the central provinces (Kabul, Logar, Panjshir, Parwan, Wardak, Kapisa, Bamyan, Daykundi (UNODC puts Gizab district of Daykundi province under Uruzgan province as per presidential decree) by 52 per cent; in the northeast (Badakhshan, Kunduz, Takhar, Baghlan) by 45 per cent; in the southwest (Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimroz) by 38 per cent; in the west (Badghis, Farah, Ghor, Herat) by 23 per cent; and in the northern region (Balkh, Faryab, Jawzjan, Samangan, Sar-e Pul) by just 5 per cent.

(2) According to Mansfield, the bombing campaign was essentially abandoned in September 2018. “There were two further strikes in the last quarter of 2018, when there had been around 50 to 70 between November 2017 and October 2018. The strikes in April 2019 focused only on methamphetamine labs, ie 68 in one day with 32 further in the cross hairs but abandoned on the day.” 

UNAMA recently released a report that examined in detail the United States airstrikes on 5 May 2019 against alleged methamphetamine processing facilities in Bakwa district of Farah province that caused at least 39 civilian casualties (see AAN report here ). The UNAMA report concluded that the operation, “did not meet the definition of legitimate military objectives under international law.”

(3) The 2018 SIGAR report found that (p 114): 

Nearly 30 percent of the annual U.S. counternarcotics budget from 2005 to 2009 was allocated to eradication, reaching a cumulative total of $877 million over those five years. Allocations for eradication declined dramatically in 2010 with the decision to scrap the Poppy Eradication Force; dispensing with the enormous logistical and contractor costs associated with the PEF accounted for a significant portion of the funding reduction. Since 2010, eradication has been only 1 percent of the annual counternarcotics budget, largely because Governor- Led Eradication was considerably less costly than the centrally planned eradication that preceded it.


opium cultivation 2019 opium harvest opium poppy cultivation UNODC World Drug Report 2020