Opium cultivation soars in Afghanistan after Taliban takeover

Farmers have made $1.4 billion from opium sales this year as exports continue unabated

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Opium cultivation is up by a third in Afghanistan as the country faces a severe economic crisis, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said on Tuesday.

The new figures appear to confirm fears the Taliban will fail to bring production to heel, and since August last year trafficking of the drug abroad has continued without interruption.

The group, which seized Afghanistan in August 2021, outlawed all cultivation of the opium poppy and all narcotics in April, but exempted this year's crop.

The amount of land used for opium growing in the country rose by 32 per cent last year, said the report published on Tuesday.

Production is predominantly in the south, where in some areas a fifth of arable land is used to grow the opium poppy. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime found cultivation is increasing in the north of the country too.

UN investigators used satellite imagery to survey Afghanistan’s crop fields after the Taliban took control of the country.

Farmers are facing tough choices in choosing which crop to plant for next year as the country's economy continues to fail. November is traditionally planting time for the season ahead, and few other crops such as wheat and vegetables can provide the income opium can.

The April ban sent prices of opium soaring this year. Afghan farmers tripled their income from $425 million in 2021 to $1.4 billion in 2022, the report found.

Ghada Waly, the UNODC's executive director, said the international community needs to do more to help the Afghan people and tackle drug trafficking around the world.

“Afghan farmers are trapped in the illicit opiate economy, while seizure events around Afghanistan suggest that opiate trafficking continues unabated,” she said.

Poppies are an attractive crop for farmers as they are pest and drought resistant, and can be stored for long periods.

Used to make street drug heroin and a range of medical prescription opioids, opium is created by scraping poppy seed pods for a milky fluid, which is then dried.

Afghanistan supplies 80 per cent of global opiate demand.

An explosion in opium production

Opium production dropped dramatically in 2001 after the last Taliban government banned it in July 2000. The UN celebrated the “near total success of the ban” in Taliban controlled areas at the time.

But the halt in growing the crop was short-lived, and since the US-led invasion in late 2001, the amount of land used for cultivation has crept up, reaching 233,000 hectares today.

The Taliban used to make a significant income from poppy cultivation. The report said the practice has “long represented a lucrative potential source of financing in Afghanistan, including in the past for non-state actors such as the Taliban.”

The April ban, however, may not be all good news. The dire economic situation in the country may mean a well-implemented ban like that of 2001 pushes farmers and others dependent on the trade to other illicit activities, or forces the cultivation abroad to other nations, the UNODC warned.

About 20 million Afghans are believed to be facing acute food insecurity as they brace for a second winter under Taliban rule.

Restrictions on the freedoms of women and girls, and the discovery that Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri was living in a Kabul safe house before he was killed by US forces, have deepened western concerns about Taliban rule.

G7 countries said in May that they expected a “swift and full implementation” of the ban on opium production.

The official ban “should lead to concrete efforts addressing illegal drugs trafficking and financing of terrorism,” the group’s foreign ministers said.

Updated: November 01, 2022, 12:59 PM