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UN Survey Finds Opiates Less Lucrative but Critical for Afghan Economy

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By Jaya Ramachandran | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis


BERLIN | VIENNA (IDN) - Despite a decrease of 45% in 2015, opiates still constitute a sizeable share of Afghanistan’s economy, according to a socio-economic analysis of the latest Opium Survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) based in the Austrian capital.

The gross value of the country’s opiate economy was estimated at USD 1.56 billion as compared to USD 2.84 billion the precious year. Corresponding to 7% of the country’s GDP, the value of opiates is comparable to the value of the export of illicit goods and services in 2014.

According to the survey by UNODC and the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, in 2015, the total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 183,000 hectares, a 19% decrease from the previous year.

All three main opium-poppy-cultivating regions saw a decrease in poppy-cultivation levels, with the largest relative decrease being in the Eastern region (-40%; mainly driven by decreases in Nangarhar), followed by the Southern (-20%) and Western (-10%) regions.

“There is ample evidence to support these decreases but it should be noted that part of these changes have been the result of an improved methodology,” says the survey.

The reduction in opium production was even more drastic. Potential opium production was estimated at 3,300 tons in 2015 (-48% from 2014), which is the lowest level since the Taliban opium ban in 2001. “The low production is a result of a reduction in area under cultivation, but more importantly of a reduction in opium yield per hectare, which amounted to an unprecedented low 18.3 kilograms per hectare,” notes the survey.

Warning against oversimplification, the survey says that opium poppy cultivation is one of the options a farming household has to support its livelihood. With the changing needs and opportunities of a household, the decision to cultivate poppy can change from one year to the next.

“An absolute divide of farmers into poppy and non-poppy growers is an oversimplification: a farmer might cultivate opium poppy in one year and abstain from it in the next year – depending on the fluctuating economic needs and opportunities.”

In 2015, only 50% of all interviewed poppy farmers had cultivated opium poppy for five consecutive years (from 2011 to 2015). The vast majority of farmers (82%) had cultivated for three consecutive years (from 2013 to 2015); 9% took breaks in cultivation, and another 9% could be classified as newcomers/re-starters, as they cultivated in 2014 and 2015 only.

Afghan farmers cultivated licit and illicit crops under a variety of land tenure modalities. Besides cultivating crops in their own land, they cultivated crops in rented land (land tenancy), and used land and returned a share of the crops produced on this land as payment to the owner (sharecropping).

The survey notes that different tenure arrangements may have allowed farmers in the Northern region to increase their areas under poppy cultivation since only 34% of the continuous poppy farmers there used exclusively their own land for cultivating crops.

The women’s perspective on opium poppy cultivation can provide a different perspective from the daily life of farming households, states the survey. Most qualitative and quantitative data on farmers’ reasons and motivations to grow illicit crops have been collected only from males and do not incorporate the women’s point of view.

The joint survey by UNODC and the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics has therefore initiated a strain of research to study the role and contribution of women to all stages of opium poppy cultivation, from the household’s decision to engage in opium cultivation to the use of its income.

What transpires when talking to women is that a clear motivation for poppy cultivation is cash income. Poppy, as lucrative cash crop, provides resources to cover daily household needs, to pay debt and to improve living conditions. Large one-time expenditures such as weddings or cars emerged as possible reasons for cultivating intermittently.

“I saw the people who cultivated poppy had good life opportunity, since that time I started to cultivate poppy,” said a woman interviewed in Baghlan.

Women seem to be aware of the illicit nature of the crop, but they justify it with the hard work involved or the economic necessity. “We know that it is harmful for human but we have more [income related] problems, so we have to cultivate poppy to solve our life problems,” said a woman interviewed in Faryab.

Medicinal use of opium for both adults and children still seems to be a relevant factor. Interviewed women displayed an awareness of the potential harmfulness of opium use (because alerted by their husbands), but lack of affordable alternatives prevent women from using less harmful remedies.

Addiction and dependence was often mentioned as a concern and more research is needed to better understand the nexus of opium poppy cultivation and opium dependence.

An important question in sustainable livelihood programmes is whether the empowerment of women can influence the decision of households to abstain from opium poppy cultivation.

The interviews with women provided a mixed picture. While it is obvious that additional cash income from labour of women can reduce the economic pressure to cultivate poppy, it was clearly stated that out of cultural reasons men often do not want women to participate in the work force.

Likewise, while some women reported that their voices are heard by their spouses, others reported that husbands are the sole decision makers in all relevant decisions. Thus, the actual influence women can have on the decision to grow poppy might be limited.

The production and trade with Afghan opiates is a business, primarily motivated by profit. The analysis by UNODC and the Afghan Ministry of Counter-Narcotics divide opiate manufacturing and trade can into four stages: production of opium gum, manufacturing of opiates, distribution and retail.

At each stage, income is generated that benefits different players. While cultivation of opium poppy and production of opium occur primarily in Afghanistan, distribution and final retail most often occur in major destination markets such as Europe. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 March 2016]

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.

Photo: Opium poppy field in Gostan valley, Nimruz Province, Afghanistan 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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