Bad News for the International Community: Opium Production in Afghanistan is Increasing
With all eyes on the Arab Spring, it is inevitable that certain reports, even of high importance, will go unnoticed. Therefore, although my past few articles have been particularly focused on the occurrences in Libya and Syria and the UK’s role in both countries, this week I have decided to steer my focus towards the recent news of rising opium production in Afghanistan. Disturbingly, it has just been reported in the Afghan Opium Survey, released last week by the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MNC) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), that opium production has reached 131,000 hectares this year; this is a shocking seven percent increase from 2010.
However, before looking at the reasons for this increase and the political implications it will have for the international community, it is important to look at some key facts to help illustrate the problem at hand. Firstly, Helmand province is currently recognized as the largest opium poppy grower, the raw ingredient used to produce heroin, accounting for half of the country’s cultivation. Furthermore, according to Forbes, Afghanistan is recognized as being the world’s largest opium producer by providing approximately 90% of the world’s crop. Secondly, the UNODC claims that although dry opium costs 43 percent more today than it did in 2010, its value is set to increase by 133 percent (from $605 million to $1,407 million) in 2011. Thirdly, and perhaps most disturbingly, the UNODC report states that opium production is spreading to new parts of Afghanistan. In fact, 17 provinces, up from 14 last year, are now renowned for their poppy cultivation. Moreover, 78% of cultivation is in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Day Kundi and Zabul.
This year’s increase in Afghan opium poppy cultivation is a result of insecurity and rising opium prices which have been the driving factor for Afghan farmers to increase their cultivation. Although opium production was affected last year because of diseased harvests, farmers’ revenues are set to soar. The UNODC report also discusses that farmers have turned to the cultivation of opium poppy because of “economic hardship and lucrative prices.” However, also exacerbating the problem is that farm-gate prices have soared to 133 percent ($1.4 billion).
Although the issue of increased poppy production is not getting as much attention as it should, it has extreme political implications that need to be taken into account by the international community. With the recent 10 year mark of the US invasion to drive out the Taliban from Afghanistan, the rising opium levels, which are known to fund much of the militia’s insurgency, should be a key issue of discussion. It is fuelling corruption and crime in Afghanistan and ‘provides considerable funding to the insurgency’ the UNODC report claims. Even Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the head of the UNODC in Afghanistan, reiterated this by stating that “We cannot afford to ignore the record profits for non-farmers, such as traders and insurgents, which in turn fuel corruption, criminality and instability.”
Yet, although this is troubling news for the international troops stationed in Afghanistan, there with the aim of stabilizing the country so responsibility can be handed over to the Afghan government, it also demonstrates a fundamental failure in the expensive Western opium poppy eradication programs put in place. For example, in 2005-2006, the international community dedicated $500 million to support the Afghan Ministry of Counter-Narcotics.
However, the British Government has been particularly active in funding programs with the aim of destroying poppy fields in Afghanistan. Despite international dispute and disagreement on how to deal with the issue, Britain has always been adamant on funding these schemes. Perhaps more accurately, in 2009 it launched a three-year eradication programme costing more than £290 million.
Therefore, the current news that opium production is rising not only acts as an impediment to leaving Afghanistan, but it demonstrates that expensive programs put in place, particularly by the UK government, have failed. Although it may be convenient for governments to ignore the disturbing new facts released in the UNODC report, they should be urged to adopt a new approach on handling the opium poppy issue in Afghanistan. With production set to potentially rise by 61 percent this year, governments should at least concede that little progress has been made so far. This way, they can at least move forward together, with respect, and adopt a new approach.