Sunday, February 22, 2009

Afghanistan and its poppies


The Afghan opium crop: buy it or legalise it?
Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent
The Times, Feb 20, 2009

For Western governments exasperated by their failure to curb the Afghan drugs trade there are two tempting solutions gaining credence in some circles: buy it or legalise it.

When the US-led invasion toppled the Taleban Government eight years ago, Afghanistan's opium production was virtually zero because the clerics had largely eradicated poppy cultivation. Last year Afghanistan produced 7,700 tonnes of opium - worth about $2.9 billion (£2 billion) - accounting for 90 per cent of the world's illegal supply.

The US alone spends $1 billion a year in Afghanistan on a counter-narcotics strategy that Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region, calls “the single most ineffective policy in the history of American foreign policy”. Britain, for its part, spent £2.5 billion last year on military operations against a Taleban insurgency inextricably linked to the drugs trade.

So wouldn't it be cheaper and easier to purchase the entire crop? James Nathan, a former State Department official and now a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, believes so. “Purchasing the whole crop would take it away from the traffickers without cutting more than half the economy out of Afghanistan,” he wrote recently.

He estimated it would cost between $2 billion and $2.5billion a year; a fraction of the $200 billion Afghanistan has cost the US taxpayer so far. The opium would be stored in the US, and perhaps released for future medical emergencies.

A less radical proposal comes from the International Council on Security and Development (ICSD), a London-based NGO, which wants Afghanistan to produce legal opiate medicine such as codeine and morphine. The ICSD proposes granting international licences to poppy farmers, placing Afghanistan alongside Turkey, India and Australia as a legal opium producer.

However, the plan to purchase the entire crop takes into account only the price of the opium, ignoring the enormous potential cost of running the operation year after year. It also assumes the corrupt Afghan Government is capable of carrying out such an enormous logistical task.
Another risk is that taking most of the crop off the international market would drive up the price of illegal opium.

The legalisation proposal is criticised for overestimating demand for opiate medicines, and being too complex to have any short-term effect.

Experts think that Afghanistan's more than 300 000 acres of poppies could produce 100 000 of biodiesel, roughly 2,5% of current global demand. Afghanistan is very dependent on imported fuel, not least to power many thousands of local electrical generators. Shortages are frequent and power stoppages very disruptive to the economy. Village-scale biodiesel processing is available technology. Poppyseed biodiesel would be a carbon-neutral energy source, produced and processed in very many localities in Afghanistan and becoming the foundation of a major export industry, especially into the rapidly expanding European market. The business model might involve villages jointly owning the production, crushing and biodiesel processing equipment.

Poppy is an adaptable crop, able to tolerate the extremes of environment in Afghanistan and able to grow where most crops fail. Furthermore Afghan farmers have a long history of poppy cultivation and are already expert in poppy agriculture. Consequently the shift to a legal poppy crop would require little initial cultural shift, and would be motivated by potential increased profitability, the attraction of participation in a legal and supported agribusiness, and the potential to alleviate pressing local and national energy and fuel needs.
Proposal from CSIRO Plant Industry, Canberra, Australia


Soaring food prices have led to violent riots and swift setbacks in the global fight against poverty this year. But in Afghanistan, which has been hit particularly hard by the spike in wheat prices, a silver lining to the food crisis is emerging. The high price of wheat might be accomplishing something the international drug war never could: convincing Afghan farmers, who supply 90 percent of the world’s opium, to abandon poppies for growing food.

Because wheat prices have nearly tripled in the past year, the price of bread for Afghans has risen dramatically. David Mansfield, an independent researcher who has studied Afghanistan’s opium market for nearly two decades, thinks that the price increase has made wheat a far more attractive crop to many poppy farmers. In 2007, a farmer could expect returns of about $320 per acre of wheat and $640 for an acre of poppy. But by this spring, the return on an acre of wheat had risen to $840 per acre, while poppy had fallen to $400 an acre.
According to nearly 500 interviews Mansfield recently conducted with Afghan farmers, poppy yields this year have been much lower than expected, which suggests that farmers are planting more wheat in response to market pressures. “[P]eople said they were going to grow more poppy than they subsequently did,” Mansfield explains. He says that even farmers in the poppy capital of Helmand province may have torn up and replanted their fields with wheat as the price began to jump. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics, 20 provinces are poppy free this year, seven more than in 2007, largely because farmers were switching to legal crops.

Still, the likelihood that Afghan farmers will stop growing poppies is remote. Bad roads, checkpoints, and corrupt intermediaries make it hard for many farmers to transport their wheat surpluses to market. For now, most farmers are finding that extra wheat makes it easier to feed their families or sell locally. But, interestingly, it was supply and demand—not aggressive antidrug efforts—that made the progress possible.

Foreign Policy, September/October 2008

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