Afghan farmers revert to growing opium, sending yields soaring

It's easy to grow, is unaffected by market shifts, they can store it for years and it earns them 100 times more than wheat

Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in the Gereshk district of Helmand on April 11, 2017.
The US government has spent billions of dollars on a war to eliminate drugs from Afghanistan, but the country still remains the world's top opium producer. / AFP PHOTO / NOOR MOHAMMAD
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Rozi Qul, a farmer from north Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, has a lot on his mind these days. His yields from this year’s harvest has been bountiful, but Mr Qul is worried about the renewed interest in his crops from the Afghan government and the Nato forces in Kabul, and their attempts to destroy it. Mr Qul is an opium farmer.

"I have been growing opium since 2010, for almost seven years now,"  he told The National. "I don't care if it's illegal; the government doesn't feed me, but opium production provides for my family."

Opium is used to produce heroin, one of the most harmful narcotics, and Mr Qul is one of thousands of farmers in Afghanistan who have switched to opium cultivation in the last decade. This year the country produced the highest amount of opium since 1994, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

While Afghanistan has been the world's largest opium-producing nation for decades, the UN agency reported that a staggering 328,000 hectares of land was under opium production this year, 127,000 hectares more than last year. A total of 9,000 tonnes of opium was produced, an 87 per cent increase on 2016.

The main reason for this unprecedented increase is economic. “If I were to grow wheat instead, one sear [seven kilograms] of wheat will only fetch me Afs150 [Dh8 or approximately US$2.50]. On the other hand, one kilogram of opium can sell for Afs15,000 to 16,000,” Mr Qul said.

Jelena Bjelica, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analyst Network, corroborates Mr Qul's experiences in her report A Low-Risk Crop in a High-Risk Environment.

“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,” she notes. “Even during wartime, the market for opium still functions. Farmers who grow legal crops have to get them to market, risking their year’s income travelling through front-lines and checkpoints. If they grow opium, the buyers come to them. It is a lot safer,” she adds.

The start-up investment needed to grow opium is much less. “Growing wheat in less than a hectare of land requires four to five bags of chemical fertiliser that can cost up to Afs1,500 to 2,000 per bag. How can I afford all that?” Mr Qul said. “Also, this will produce 100 sear of wheat which will earn me about Afs10,000. After all that investment and work, I can’t even make enough to feed my family.”

Opium, on the other hand, ensures a steady and sustainable income for millions of Afghans.

“The beneficiaries range from the landless poor to the well-connected rich (and both Taliban and government-related figures). For the poorest, the expansion of labour-intensive opium production may feel like a godsend,” Ms Bjelica said.

It is no secret that opium production, processing, sale and smuggling helps fill the Taliban's coffers, which further fuels the instability in Afghanistan. In fact, as part of its latest strategy, US forces in Afghanistan have begun targeting what they refer to as the “Taliban drug labs” in the hopes of weakening the financial pillars of the insurgents.

“In striking northern Helmand and the drug enterprises there, we're hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances,” General John Nicholson, commander of Nato's Resolute Support mission and US forces in Afghanistan said recently. “The Taliban are interested in making money, and to some extent it's fair to say that this movement has evolved into a narco-insurgency. It's an illegal economy that, in terms of street value, is something close to $60 billion, as estimated by our law enforcement agencies.”

Gen Nicholson said that at least $200 million of this opium industry goes into the Taliban's bank accounts, thus funding the conflict. He also gave assurances that his forces were not going after the opium farmers.

Which leaves government forces — and they do not worry Mr Qul at all. “Government officials can only wield power in about 100 metres circumference of their district office. They have no control on rural areas,” he said.

He also indicated that the Taliban were not the only buyers of his produce, though he would not say who his other customers were.

“Taliban doesn’t force us but yes, they do encourage us to cultivate opium,” he said. “Of course, they buy from us, and other people buy it too, because it is a free market and anyone is allowed to buy.”