Sunday, July 8, 2007

Ending illegal opium production in Afghanistan: Why there are no silver bullets

There is broad agreement among countries whose soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan that peace and stability will never be achieved unless something is done to curtail the country’s soaring opium production.

Afghanistan is now a narco-state. It produced 92 per cent of the world’s opium last year, according to the latest UN World Drug Report. The illegal trade involves everyone from poor farmers, to warlords, to senior government officials. Drug money buys weapons that are used to continue the conflict. It fuels the rampant corruption undermining the fragile institutions of the Afghan state. And it defeats attempts, some of them funded by Canadian taxpayers, to build a viable economy and national system of law and order.

But while the problems caused by illegal opium production are all too clear, what to do about it is not. How do you wipe out an industry that employs an estimated 2.9 million people and accounts for somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the economy without destroying an already devastated country?

In such a situation, simple solutions — so-called silver bullets — have an understandable allure. At least three are being debated: eradication, where chemicals or bulldozers are used to destroy poppy crops; alternative livelihoods, where farmers are given support to grow other crops or pursue other businesses; and legalization, where opium is purchased from producers and used to make legal painkillers.

A sobering predicament

Would that they were as simple as they sound. They are not. Two experts with long experience in Afghanistan outlined the drawbacks of each approach at a recent conference in Ottawa organized by the International Development Research Centre and the Aga Khan Foundation Canada. David Mansfield, a drugs and development specialist, has spent 10 years in the country doing research in rural areas. William Byrd is a World Bank economist specializing in South Asia. Their analysis was sobering.

Eradication is favoured by the United States, which has used crop spraying in its so-called war on drugs in South America and wants to do the same thing in Afghanistan. The problem is that the two crops are not the same. Coca leaves that are used to make cocaine grow on bushes that take time to mature, and destroying them can set producers back years. Poppies are an annual crop. Wipe them out one year and they can be replanted the next, sometimes in the same area, sometimes in a different part of the country. The opium industry is "footloose and flexible," Mr. Byrd said. Eradication also hits the poorest farmers the hardest. It deprives farm families of funds from the current crop, but also plunges them further into debt because many of them have borrowed money against anticipated earnings from the harvest. They face stark choices: plant more poppies next year to make up for the shortfall, sell some of their meagre assets, or even arrange marriages for their young daughters.

Those with money can bribe government officials to overlook their fields. But this results in an uneven application of eradication, which only increases discontent with the government among the poor.

Canada favours alternative livelihoods

Encouraging alternative livelihoods sounds wonderful. And if Afghanistan is to survive as a country, all those involved in the illegal drug trade will have to find some other way to make money. This is also the policy prescription that Canada favours. (Canadian troops are not involved in the eradication campaign.)

But while the goal is clear, how to make the transition is not.

As Mansfield points out, no other crop offers the same attractions as opium. It is easily transportable, does not perish en route to market, and garners much higher returns than most agricultural products. The UN report said the farm-gate price of opium was $125 US per kilogram last year. (The farmer would not keep all of that, as he would have costs, such as labour and bribes.) The average yield is 37 kilograms per hectare. Poppy cultivation is more labour intensive than other crops. Switching to wheat or vegetables, where soil conditions make such crops possible, automatically means higher unemployment.

Still, in areas where land is fertile, transport reliable, and there are markets nearby, wheat and vegetables represent viable alternatives. They fetch a lower price, but the risks of having the crop confiscated by a warlord or wiped out in an eradication program are low. However, much of Afghanistan has poor soil and bad roads. Farmers in these areas have fewer choices.

Development workers can sometimes worsen the situation with well-meaning but poorly thought out interventions, says Mansfield. For example, building a new irrigation system to give farmers access to more water might actually encourage them to grow more poppies if they do not have access to a market for other crops. Each area is different, so programs have to be tailored to local circumstances, which are changing all the time.

Legalization requires a functioning government

Legalization of the illegal industry, which is being promoted by the Senlis Council (and was recommended at least as a pilot project in a recent report of the House of Commons National Defence committee), also has its drawbacks. It has been done successfully in Turkey. Other countries, such as India and France, have legal opium industries. But as these two experts point out, a legal industry requires government infrastructure to impose and enforce regulations, something that Afghanistan lacks. The majority of the opium in Afghanistan is produced in the unstable provinces of the south and southeast, where Western troops, including those of Canada, are still fighting.

Without strict government oversight, illegal production could flourish alongside the legal industry. Only three per cent of farmland is currently used for poppy cultivation, leaving lots of room for expansion. They also believe there is no shortage of legal opium globally, so producer countries will have to cut production to make room for Afghan production. This last point is disputed by the Senlis Council. Finally, it is not just the Afghanistan government’s ability that is lacking, it is also its willingness to end an illegal trade that involves some senior government officials. So what is the answer? Attractive as the idea seems, there is no silver bullet. Instead, a mix of well-designed and well-integrated policies is needed to tackle illegal opium production in Afghanistan. And even then, success will take decades, not years.

Of course, there is another approach that governments outside of Afghanistan could take. The market for opium and its derivatives, such as heroin, operates like any other on the principles of supply and demand. All of the solutions proposed above tackle the supply end. But what about demand? If that were wiped out, there would be no market for illegal opium and the suppliers would have to find other ways to make a living.

This is a problem best tackled from both ends, and not just on the ground in Afghanistan.

author: Madelaine Drohan
source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

1 comment:

jo said...

It seems to me that legalisation of opium might be the only step forward - eradication is clearly a failure. I was interested to read in the Senlis report (, that their proposal is based on existing traditional control structures, which would provide part of the infrastructure that David Mansfield and Willem Byrd say is lacking. A pilot project, that the Council calls for next season, would put in place elements for an infrastructure - eradication has clearly failed, it seems that opium should be used as a resource and that Afghan farmers should be supported not pushed towards poverty.