The Poppy Ban
The poppy ban impoverished some of the most vulnerable groups of the society including landless and small-holder farmers, women headed households, youth and disabled. Even though poppy cultivation was illegal under the Republic, widespread corruption and lack of enforcement allowed the illicit economy to thrive. In 2017, when 328,000 hectares of opium poppy were cultivated, opium poppy weeding and harvesting provided the equivalent of up to 354,000 full time jobs to local and migrant workers hired by farmers. When also including labor by family members, it was estimated that opium poppy cultivation provided around 590,000 full time equivalent on-farm jobs in 2017. In the absence of alternatives, poppy farmers are desperately resorting to negative coping mechanisms including but not limited to exploitative child labor, early and forced marriages, sale of assets, organs and even children. Some farmers and in particular those who defaulted on their debt to opium traders who were providing advance loans through an informal credit system, are migrating withing and outside of Afghanistan.
The significant loss of income due to the poppy ban without alternatives is creating a self-perpetuating negative feedback loop whereby poppy farmers are forced to cut back on their food and health expenditures leading to malnutrition and exposure to increased health risks, while the yield and productivity of licit crops cultivation is also anticipated to reduce as part of the poppy income was also financing the inputs, fertilizers, pest management and agricultural tools/equipment/machinery used for the licit crops cultivation. This negative feedback loop is expected to be further reinforced as many farmers cultivated wheat in place of poppy whose planting seasons overlap with each other which will cause an increase in wheat production in the short run but also a reduction in wheat prices disincentivizing future wheat cultivation unless crop plantation is carefully planned taking into account the market dynamics. The combination of lack of awareness, knowledge and technical skills, and favoring short term interests at the expense of long-term environmental concerns, has led some poppy farmers to cultivate cotton instead of food crops during the 2023 spring/summer cultivation season to compensate for the loss of poppy income as the former has higher value but also is a water intensive crop that exacerbates the overuse of ground water. Indeed, water scarcity is becoming a chronic problem in Afghanistan due to climate change, which manifest itself in persistent droughts and the third consecutive year of drought in 2023 with an accelerating drop in the ground water table. Farmers who used to rely only on surface water just 20 years ago are now mostly relying on ground water which has taken over the surface water as the primary water source for irrigation. The well depths have been becoming increasingly deeper and depths over 100 meters are increasingly becoming common place. Another worrying threat to food security is recently emerging which “could destroy up to 1.2 million metric tons of wheat, or a quarter of the total annual harvest” as drought, over-grazing, very limited locust control and just the right amount of rainfall created the ideal environment for locusts to hatch and swarm which were spotted in the North and Northeast Regions of Afghanistan in May 2023.
Despite continued presence and delivery of UNODC in the aftermath of August 2021, the 15,288 vulnerable poppy reliant households supported in Helmand, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Laghman provinces under TEF is only a small portion of 200,000 households who relied on poppy cultivation for their livelihoods. UNODC aims to reach over 100,000 vulnerable poppy reliant households across the country under UN Strategic Framework for Afghanistan 2023-2025 which superseded TEF.