Blooming and Booming: Peter Willems Reports on Soaring Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan and the Government's Effort to Clamp Down on What Has Become the Country's Main Engine for Economic Growth

By Willems, Peter | The Middle East, February 2005 | Go to article overview

Blooming and Booming: Peter Willems Reports on Soaring Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan and the Government's Effort to Clamp Down on What Has Become the Country's Main Engine for Economic Growth


Willems, Peter, The Middle East


IT WAS A MOMENTOUS OCCASION WHEN Hamid Karzai was sworn in on 7 December as the first Afghan president elected by the people. Hundreds of local and foreign dignitaries gathered at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, including US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney, the most senior US administration official to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001.

"We have left a hard, dark past behind us and today we open a new chapter in our history, in a spirit of friendship with the international community," said Karzai, who captured 55% of the votes in the October poll. "We have a duty before our people to deliver, to the best of our ability, an Afghanistan that is free, stable, prosperous and enjoying a dignified place in the region and the world."

But just days before Karzai's inauguration, the United Nations released a disturbing report on drug trafficking in Afghanistan, a business that will challenge Karzai's efforts to build security and stability and bring new prosperity to the war-torn country.

According to the Afghanistan Opium Survey of 2004 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), farmers growing poppies in Afghanistan jumped dramatically to near record levels last year. Land used for poppy cultivation reached 131,000 hectares in 2004, up 64% from the previous year, and representing a dramatic increase from just 8,000 hectares in 2001. Harvesting in 2004 yielded an additional 17% over 2003, which produced 4,200 metric tons. The UN report noted that poppies are now being planted in each of the country's 32 provinces, to supply 87% of the world's total opium supply.

Fear is rising that the drug business, alongside terrorist attacks and the presence of the remaining Taliban fighters still entrenched in the south, is a threat to Afghanistan's security.

"In Afghanistan, drugs are now a clear and present danger," says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC. "The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is slowly becoming a reality as corruption in the public sector, the diehard ambition of local warlords, and the complicity of local investors are becoming a factor of Afghan life."

Up to now, Britain has been responsible for managing international efforts to curb opium production. But at the end of November, the US government stepped in to implement a more aggressive plan: Drug enforcement agencies asked Congress for $780m to tackle the drug business. The new US effort will include increasing the eradication of poppies, arresting and prosecuting traffickers, and providing alternative crops for farmers.

The new Afghan government said opium production has become its number one concern. Government spokesman Jawed Ludin confirmed that the war on drugs is now the Karzai regime's top priority, and "perhaps more important than terrorism".

"The government is now getting involved in more serious activities to eradicate poppy cultivation," says Syed Alamudin Atheer, deputy director of Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Directorate. "The Ministry of Interior now meets with political figures and influential people from different provinces who are willing to cooperate in ending opium production. The government plans to see a drastic drop in cultivation next year."

But the fight against opium production will face serious challenges. Farmers complain they have not received assistance in finding an alternative crop, and even if there was help, some of them might be reluctant to switch. Even though the price of a kilogram of opium has fallen recently--from $283 to $92 per kilo--the income from opium for farmers is still 12 times more than they can earn from growing wheat.

"Alternative livelihoods do take a certain amount of time since large rural development measures have to be comprehensive and include infrastructure, like road construction, support to irrigation systems, building health clinics, providing training, support to schools, as well as support to agriculture, livestock and off-farm income generation," says Doris Buddendberg, head of UNODC's Afghanistan operations. …

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