Economy & Development

“One Year’s Result is Not a Trend”: the 2015 opium cultivation decrease


Poppy Field in Helmand. Photo: AAN Staff

Poppy Field in Helmand. Photo: AAN Staff

The decline (by almost a fifth) in the area of land in Afghanistan planted with opium poppy in 2015 came as a surprise to many. Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan had been on the rise since 2010, when an opium poppy blight halved opium production and triggered a subsequent hike in opium prices. However, the decline is largely due, it seems, to natural causes – crop failure in the traditional opium-growing heartland of the south – and market fluctuation, rather than anything the government or outside agencies have done. Moreover, the trend was bucked in areas of the north and west, where farmers, especially those living in insecure areas, have been putting more land under poppy cultivation. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica, who has been scrutinising the 2015 UNODC Opium Survey, reports.

The amount of land under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan fell by 19 per cent in 2015 compared to the record high of 224,000 hectares in 2014. (1) These figures can be found in the 2015 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Opium Survey Executive Summary released on 14 October 2015. The most significant reason for the drop in cultivation appears to have been repeated crop failures in the south and southwest regions of Afghanistan where, traditionally, most of country’s illicit crop has been cultivated. Poor harvests driven by drought and mono-cropping which exhausts the soil and encourages diseases and pests, especially poppy blight, led farmers to sow less of their land with poppy this year than last (see Afghan opium expert David Mansfield’s analysis here) and previous AAN reporting on this from 2010.

Cultivation in the southern region decreased by 20 per cent. In Helmand alone, reported UNODC, cultivation dropped to 86,400 hectares, from the previous year’s 103,240 hectares apparently and in Kandahar, there was a larger relative decrease in cultivation, of 38 per cent (2).

The opium market in Afghanistan does not necessarily play by the standard economic rules when it comes to demand, supply and prices affecting farmers’ planting decisions. In 2014, for example, UNODC thought that the demand for ready cash from those competing in the presidential and parliamentary elections was one reason why cultivation was so high. Opium is also different from other crops because as well as providing an income, when it is dried it can be stored for several years, so also functions as capital and savings. Nevertheless, price and supply do still matter. One key factor behind the reduced cultivation this year, according to the UN and other observers, was the large amount of opium stockpiles.

UNODC also cited increased eradication of poppy crops this year as having reduced the area under cultivation. 40 per cent more land was reported eradicated – from 2,700 hectares in 2014 to 3,760 hectares in 2105. However, that is still a tiny percentage of the overall area under cultivation.

UNODC Regional Representative for Afghanistan and Neighbouring Countries Andrey Avetisyan also said there had been better coordination in the most insecure areas, which led to more eradication in 2015. This was especially the case, he said, during “the spring offensive in Helmand’s Sangin district where, after [Afghan army] operations, the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan forces eradicated the opium poppy fields immediately.” However, on the seizures side, there has been something of a decline since 2013. The Counter Narcotics Police carried out 3,243 law enforcement operations in 2013, compared to 2,734 operations in 2014 (4) and, by the end of September 2015, had carried out just over 2,000 operations.

A bad harvest

Not only was less land planted with poppy this year, but what was grown had a lower yield. The average opium yield fell to 18.3 kilograms per hectare in 2015, a 36 per cent decline, compared to 28.7 kilograms per hectare in 2014.

Together with the lower opium cultivation, this meant opium production (5) in Afghanistan in 2015 was almost half (48 per cent) of what it had been in 2014; UNODC estimated a 2015 harvest of 3,300 metric tons compared with 6,400 metric tons in 2014.

AAN compared UNODC’s opium yield estimates for the last six years by analysing the data from the annual Afghanistan Opium Surveys in the period of 2009 to 2015. The chart below shows a trend of a gradual decrease in the opium yield over this period. According to a UNODC crop-monitoring expert, the decrease is due to “less rotation of crops in the fields over a period of several years.” This lack of rotation resulted, he said, in poppy plants producing fewer bulbs in 2015 (instead of six to seven on average, this year there were only three to four per plant). UNODC also reported a lower density of crops in the fields. Satellite images clearly show visible patches of soil in some fields that further contribute to a lower yield per hectare. The UNODC expert explained “the decrease of approximately 40,000 hectares could also be [due to] fields left unsown for the crop rotation [being left fallow].”

That lower yield was seen even in Kandahar where (as reported by Associated Press in May 2015), traders had distributed genetically-modified poppy seeds to farmers just before the planting season (in parts of Kandahar and Helmand poppy is planted twice a year). These seeds were supposed to boost the yield and shorten the growth cycle of the plants. According to a UNODC crop expert, the seeds originate in China where legal opium poppy cultivation is undertaken for pharmaceutical use, as is the case in over a dozen countries. “The genetically modified seeds shorten the growth cycle of the plant – to one to two months, instead of five to six months,” the UNODC expert told AAN, “but the resin production is pretty much the same as with the Afghan seeds.” (3)

Average Opium Yield. Table: AAN (based on UNODC Opium Survey Data 2009-2015)

Average Opium Yield. Table: AAN (based on UNODC Opium Survey Data 2009-2015)

Opium cultivation and insecurity on the rise in the north and west

The national decline in opium cultivation and production was, however, bucked in parts of the north and west. In 2015, farmers in eight provinces (Kabul, Kunar, Baghlan, Faryab, Sar-e Pol, Uruzgan, Badghis and Ghor) sowed more opium than in the previous year. In the north, Faryab and Sar-e Pol had significant increases in cultivation, up by 451 per cent and 70 per cent respectively, while, in the west, Badghis and Ghor’s cultivation increased by 117 per cent and 249 per cent respectively.

Several factors may have been causing this rise. There is a well-documented correlation between insecurity (both physical and human/livelihoods insecurity) and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, including, for example, by David Mansfield. The reason for this is that opium is a low risk crop (unless repeated mono-cropping has led to failed harvests) in a high-risk environment. It is a natural choice for farmers living with an insurgency.

Looking at insecurity patterns in northern and western provinces where the cultivation has significantly increased, AAN compared district level cultivation and security incidents using data provided by UNODC and an independent organisation observing the security situation in Afghanistan. Quantitative analysis confirmed the correlation between increased insecurity and an increase in poppy cultivation, except in the case of Sayyed district of Sar-e Pol province and Lal wa Sarjangal district of Ghor province.

In Faryab’s Qaisar, Gurziwan and Kohistan districts, where the UNODC data showed a significant increase in cultivation, 360 incidents involving armed opposition groups, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and/or criminals in the period from October 2014 to September 2015 had been recorded. The data set shows that these incidents in the three districts constituted a third of all reported incidents in all the 14 districts of Faryab province. As reported by AAN in April 2014, the Taleban had stormed parts of Qaisar district, occupied villages and swept Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) out of their checkpoints. (See AAN previous reporting on rising insecurity in Faryab, in 2014 here and in 2013 here).

For Sar-e Pol province, UNODC recorded a significant increase in poppy cultivation in the district of Sayyad. (6) AAN has previously reported on the Taleban establishing footholds in far-flung areas of Sayyad and Kohistanat districts (see AAN 2015 report here). In Sayyed district, which did not show a significant increase in insecurity, there are indications that the Afghan Local Police (ALP) are themselves involved in cultivation. In a phone interview, a provincial council member from Sar-e Pol told AAN, “This year’s government plan to eradicate opium poppy fields was prevented by the local ALP commander and his sub-commanders, who are supporting the farmers who are growing illicit crop and are protecting them from the government.”

Shifting to the north-western province of Badghis, UNODC data shows three out of its eight districts had a significant increase in poppy cultivation. At the same time, the number of incidents in these districts (Ghormach, Qadis, Ab Kamari) made up a little over half (55 per cent) of the total number of incidents reported for Badghis over a one-year period. The majority of these incidents were related to the armed opposition. (7) The cultivation in Badghis has been steadily on the increase since 2009, reaching a high of over 12,000 hectares this year.

A prominent elder from Badghis described to AAN how farmers had enjoyed “capacity building” in how to grow and harvest poppy in recent years: labourers travelling south to work had brought back skills to their home province. He also blamed the increase in cultivation on the classic dilemma facing farmers in an insurgency-plagued province: try to get non-opium produce to faraway markets (in Herat or Mazar) through insecure areas or wait for the opium traders to come to the door who will buy your harvest from you directly.

In the province of Ghor, a significant increase in opium poppy cultivation was recorded in half of the districts of the province, namely in Chaghcharan, Dawlatyar, Lal wa Sarjangal, Pasaband and Taywara. Since 2012, when Ghor lost its poppy-free status (8), opium poppy cultivation in the province has been steadily on the rise (see previous AAN reports from 2013 here and here). According to available security data, from October 2014 to September 2015, 144 incidents (or 44 per cent of the total number of reported security incidents) in Ghor were recorded in these five districts. (9)

What to plant next year?

Farmers and traders usually wait for the price spike that generally occurs in the autumn before they sell their stocks. By September, however, the farm-gate and traders’ prices of dry opium had already started to increase. The farm-gate price for a kilogram of dry opium was 155 US dollars and the traders’ sale price was 164 US dollars for the same unit that month. Both had increased by 12 per cent compared to the same period in 2014, according to the Afghanistan Drug Price Monitoring Monthly Report, which is jointly compiled by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and UNODC Kabul and published in September 2015. If prices continue to rise, this could trigger a new increase in cultivation next year. However, we may see fluctuations in prices in the coming months, says UNODC, given the increased number of security forces along the Tajik-Afghan border who could disrupt regular smuggling routes.

The decline in cultivation and production this year should make no-one too hopeful that this year’s figures represent the start of a downward trend. Opium poppy is an annual crop so trends need to be measured in longer time periods.

Opium poppy also remains easily Afghanistan’s most valuable export crop. (10) The net export value of last year’s opium harvest was estimated by UNODC at 2.7 billion US dollars or 13 per cent of nation’s licit GDP. This figure is especially large compared to other agricultural exports, dwarfing the second most valuable agricultural export – dried fruit and medicinal plants; in 2014, for example, these were worth only 234.7 million USD (according to the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, quoted in the UN Secretary General’s February 2015 report). Opium exports also dwarf Afghanistan’s total legal exports: in 2014, these were valued at just 571 million USD.

Poppy cultivation and opium production may have decreased this year, but, by itself, this gives little reason for optimism. As head of UNODC Avetisyan put it, “One year’s result is not a trend.”

(1) In 2015, the area of opium cultivation amounted to 183,000 hectares.

(2) UNODC warns that due to methodological changes, the actual extent of change (increase/decrease) needs to be taken with caution, especially in Badghis, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Zabul, “which were particularly affected by the shift to the new methodology” (see page 6 of Afghanistan Opium Survey 2015: Executive Summary).

(3) The price of Chinese seeds is seven to ten times higher than that of Afghan-grown ones. According to the Afghanistan Drug Price Monitoring Monthly Report in September 2015, the price for a kilogram of Afghan-grown poppy seeds was 39 Afghani (about 0.60 US dollars) in Kandahar.

(4) In 2014, the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan operations resulted in seizures of 4,146 kilograms of heroin, 6,361 kilograms of morphine and 69,169 kilograms of opium. Moreover, a total of 45 heroin-manufacturing laboratories were dismantled (UN Secretary General Report on Afghanistan A/69/801*–S/2015/151* available here).

In 2013, the counter-narcotics police had conducted 3,243 operations, seizing 7,157 kilograms of heroin, 23,979 kilograms of morphine, 115,650 kilograms of opium and dismantled 71 heroin manufacturing laboratories. (UN Secretary General Report on Afghanistan A/68/789–S/2014/163 available here)

(5) UNODC only reports ‘potential’ opium production per year, thereby acknowledging the limitation in its estimation formula: as it is an illicit crop, getting accurate figures is not so easy.

(6) According to available security records, only some incidents, as few as eight, were recorded in the period from October 2014 to September 2015. Of these eight incidents, two were crime-related, one was initiated by the Afghan National Security Forces, while the remaining five involved the armed opposition.

(7) Statistics based on the data set provided by an independent organisation observing the security situation in Afghanistan for the period October 2014 to September 2015.

(8) A province is defined as ‘poppy-free’ by UNODC when there are less than 100 hectares of poppy cultivation.

(9) Only three incidents were reported in the district of Lal wa Sarjangal in Ghor province in the period October 2014 to September 2015. A safe district, nonetheless, it has shown a rise in poppy cultivation.

(10) 90 per cent of world illicit opiates are still produced in Afghanistan. Opiates are a common name for opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin. It was estimated that 52 per cent of Afghan opium is converted into heroin or morphine within Afghanistan, according to the UNODC Opium Survey 2010.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development