Opium and Afghanistan

The opium industry in Afghanistan is booming! But will it remain this way?  The poppy plant, from which opium is derived, has been a staple crop of Afghan farmers for many years now.  And for good reason, for poppy is relatively easy to take care of and fetches a lot of money.  However, only 10% of the world’s production of opium is legal, and is strictly monitored by the governments in India, Australia and Turkey.  The other 90% of the world’s opium production comes from Afghanistan but is completely illegal.  Various organizations have been working for over a decade to try and end this illegal cultivation and trade of opium.

When I first heard of the overwhelming statistic on poppy crops in Afghanistan, I was surprised and then confused.  Aside from the obvious facts that opium is illegal and highly addictive, I was completely unaware of why so many international organizations were concerned about poppy cultivation.  After doing some more research, I realized how drastic the repercussions of opium in Afghanistan truly are:

  • The majority of money made from opium goes into funding the Taliban.  The insurgency uses the drug money to buy their weapons, explosives, and to pay their soldiers.
  • Villages of Afghanistan that are unstable, underdeveloped and prone to violence are the leaders in growing opium.  These are the areas that have stronger ties to the Taliban because the government is not doing enough to provide for them.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that there is a direct correlation between high insecurity and high opium cultivation.
  • The high prices of opium have pushed out all desire for farmers to plant any other crops.  Even for the few farmers that do wish to farm other crops, there is unfortunately no alternative offered to them.
  • Opium is very much engrained in the lifestyles of Afghans; a large portion of the population is addicted to opium, even children.


Now that I understand how dangerous the opium industry is, I am completely in support of projects that work to stop the cultivation and production of opium.  However, I also am aware of how ambitious an endeavor this is.  While there is no lack of aid being poured into Afghanistan, none of these projects are able to truly get to the root of the development problem, which is that Afghans cultivate poppy because they have no viable alternatives being offered to them.  Some current projects by international organizations have campaigned to appeal to Afghans by pointing out how the cultivation of the illegal crop is very un-Islamic.  While Afghans acknowledge this, the truth is that people are motivated by poverty and will do whatever they can to survive.  Thus, most Afghan farmers who harvest opium do so because they feel they have no other choice.  They live in poverty and are in need of a crop that will help support themselves and their families.

Ideas for eradication of opium already exist.  Some advocate having the US government buy the entire harvest of opium from the farmers annually.  This way the farmers would still make a living but none of the opium would be sold, nor be used to fund the Taliban.  But this is a big stretch because it’s hard to access all the opium.  It’s estimated that over 12,000 tons of opium are hidden away in reserves. Other organizations have diverged from the traditional proposal of eradication through buying and destroying all opium; instead they wish to buy out only the crops in regions of Afghanistan that are known to bring money directly to the Taliban.  The rest of the harvest would be left to the local government to deal with.  I do agree with this idea, although it does have some problems.  It cannot be denied that opium really does provide locals with much needed money.  This should be taken into account in combination with the fact that even if it were possible to buy and burn harvests of opium, there would still be thousands of tons of opium in reserves that will continue funding the insurgency and war.  I think to completely get rid of opium stocks is not only unattainable but also not very useful.  However, this plan runs the risk of having corrupt Afghan officials traffic the leftover opium.

Hypothetically speaking though, even if the entire opium harvest were somehow eradicated, this would still not be a good solution.  Why you ask?  Because if we get rid of all this opium, then what will Afghans do to survive?  It doesn’t make any sense, nor will it provide any help to remove their only source of income.   Complete eradication has to be partnered with other projects, such as providing farmers with seeds of other plants and machines to work the land.  Seeds for wheat and saffron have already been distributed in some regions.  Unfortunately though, these efforts still haven’t been enough.  Although there was a reported drop in the cultivation of poppy in 2009, this drop cannot be completely attributed to the efforts of the international realm, as the decline coincided with disease that struck the poppy plants and affected the harvest.  Today, poppy cultivation is on the rise again, due largely to the sky-rocketing prices of opium.  Farmers are now returning to planting poppy in hopes to earn more money than what other crops can offer them.  Even though this is disheartening, I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the importance and potential for positive impact from continued international efforts in Afghanistan.

Since it’s been argued that eradication campaigns wouldn’t be feasible, this is where several organizations have put forth an unconventional concept to instead attempt to overflow Afghanistan with opium.  Based on the basic premise that making opium scarce will promote more cultivation to take advantage of higher prices, some are proposing that legally harvested opium in other countries be dumped in Afghanistan to drastically lower the prices and force farmers to cultivate other crops.  I’m not too sure how well this overflow attempt would work.  Although it is based on basic principles of economics it still has the potential to backfire.  I would rather focus to providing farmers will alternatives in crops that doesn’t involve providing more opium, because this supply could once again be placed in reserves and sold later when prices go back up.  To me, the most important aspects to address in Afghanistan are to have stronger governance and security and increased agricultural aid.  Dealing with opium production is an important issue on the international world’s agenda, but they can only do so much.  The Afghan government must step up to create some of its own options for controlling the drug.  It seems to me that an effective first step would be to enact stricter policing so that no one accepts bribes to look the other way while some farmers continue harvesting opium.  The government should also work towards gaining more access to medicine to treat those who are sick.  While it’s good to get rid of opium and end addiction, locals will then need alternatives for medicine.  After all, addiction became such a prominent problem simply because opium was readily available to treat sickness and pain when nothing else was.  Clearly the ability to offer alternatives to the people is very important in solving this problem!

Dealing with opium in Afghanistan is admittedly very difficult and complex.  But I think that if international organizations and the Afghan government can coordinate to combine their various strategies – be it eradication with alternative crops, alternative crops while paying farmers what they would’ve earned for opium, or stricter policing with alternative crops and alternative access to medical care – this would create more potential for success.  I think it’s wonderful that so many countries have invested their efforts in the problem, and that local Afghans as well as Afghan officials are also willing to work towards change.




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