By Emily Thompson
When the Taliban administration in Afghanistan banned the cultivation of narcotics earlier this year, it excited those involved in international efforts to stem the narcotics trade, but it placed the farmers who rely on the cash crops for a living in a bind.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report recently demonstrating how opium cultivation fell throughout the country to just 10,800 hectares (26,700 acres) in 2023 from 233,000 hectares the previous year, slashing supply by 95% to 333 tons.
At the same time, the report also notes that the illicit economy “is thriving as the licit economy contracts sharply. After August 2021 the licit economy contracted by nearly USD 5 billion, or 21%, compared to 2020.”
Opium, when turned into morphine and heroin and exported globally, generates incredibly high levels of income compared to the amounts that the farmers earn. The opium trade has allowed farmers to earn a living but contributes little to the economy itself. Farmers pay warlords for protection and warlords provide security for the trade and pay off corrupt government officials. The warlords undermine the various local and government institutions and this results in a weak and dysfunctional government.
According to a study by UK-based Chatham House, “Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium, making up more than 80 per cent of the world’s opium harvest. Opium is mainly used to produce heroin and 95 per cent of the heroin made from Afghan opium reaches European markets. But drugs originating in the country are not limited to export markets. The number of drug users within Afghanistan has risen to about four million, according to some sources.”
Afghanistan today can be considered a historical culmination of brutal wars and tribal conflicts, at least since the 7th century BCE – all for control of this sizeable landmass, which has served as a central trading route between East Asia, Central Asia, Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years. Foreign rulers paid close attention to the clashes fought in this region and recognized the economic and strategic potential of controlling the land.
Wars and conflicts would leave Afghanistan a devastated and impoverished country, seemingly devoid of any hope for a promising future. With the US-led invasion in 2001 and the subsequent, yet temporary, fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan began to breathe again, gaining momentum and beginning the realization of a dream so often dreamed by its poor natives.
But after the Taliban issued a prohibition on poppy farming, farmers were forced to rely on less lucrative crops, with the nation’s internal affairs department declaring its intention to eradicate any crops that remained. When they first governed in 2000, the Taliban had implemented a similar ban on poppy farming, aspiring to gain global recognition, but this move was met with substantial domestic opposition, as noted by experts.
Regions with traditionally strong backing for the Taliban, like the southern province of Helmand, are known for their extensive opium poppy cultivation. The huge reduction in supply from Afghanistan could eventually lead to a drop in opium use internationally, but it also risked escalating the global use of alternatives such as fentanyl or synthetic opioids, the UNODC said.
Likewise, according to the United States Institute of Peace, the banning of opium in Afghanistan has led to a drastic economic downturn, particularly affecting the rural economy by over $1 billion annually. This loss severely impacts poor laborers and sharecroppers, pushing them closer to the brink of hunger and with its many accompanying hardships. This financial hit is exacerbated by an anticipated cut in humanitarian aid of around $1 billion from the previous year’s $3 billion.
The problem is that the rural population, which is primarily poor, faces additional hardships as substituting opium with wheat is not economically feasible, especially for those with little or no land. Afghan livelihoods traditionally rely on cash crops (like poppy) and agricultural products for income, which in turn is used to buy food. Wheat, being a low-value crop, is an insufficient replacement for opium and only serves as a stopgap for those awaiting the chance to cultivate opium again. Long-term alternatives like fruit and tree crops are more promising but require substantial investment and time to establish.
The Taliban’s ban on cultivating opium by growing poppy will likely have a devastating effect on millions of poor Afghanis who now must find other forms of income.
At the same time, reducing opium cultivation will have a positive global effect on the drug trade as well as within Afghanistan. Like everything, there are trade-offs and pros and cons to every decision.
Ideally, farmers should be able to find various alternative avenues for sustaining their livelihoods. In an ideal situation, they could diversify their agriculture by shifting to other cash crops such as saffron, pomegranates, or almonds, which can fetch premium prices. Rearing livestock is another viable option; by managing herds of sheep, goats, or cattle, they can generate income from the sale of meat, milk, and wool. Engaging in agroforestry by integrating trees into their farming practices not only helps in soil conservation but also yields fruits, nuts, and timber.
Another possibility may be for farmers to form agricultural cooperatives to reduce costs and improve market access. The transition away from opium will require overcoming initial challenges, such as acquiring new skills and investments.
But without adequate support, a sustainable and profitable shift will remain elusive for Afghan farmers unless the Taliban provides them with an alternative to making a living.
Until then, Afghanistan’s farmers will become impoverished once again.