Christina Oguz: "To work in Afghanistan, you need to be an optimist." 

By Louise Potterton

Christina Oguz, UNODC Representative in Afghanistan

UNODC Representative in Afghanistan Christina Oguz talks about drugs and crime and life in a country devastated by opium, poverty and war.

What are the main reasons for the increase in opium cultivation? 

The southern part of Afghanistan is a traditional opium cultivation area, where security is very poor, where the rule of law doesn't really exist and where the government is very weak. A map of opium cultivation and a map of security put on top of each other look almost the same. We should also remember that it is very profitable. Farmers can get about 10 times more per hectare if they cultivate opium compared to something else. 

If opium poppy is so lucrative, how can you possibly encourage farmers to grow something else?

Afghanistan is more or less divided into two parts. In the south, about 80 per cent of the farmers cultivate opium. The rest of the country has a better security situation and village council campaigns informing farmers that it's actually against Islam to cultivate-that it's Haram. This has been a success in those parts of Afghanistan, but it has not been such a success in the south. In the south you have poor security, but you also have the social norm that it is OK to cultivate. So I think you need to look for two different solutions. My suggestion would be to invest in the provinces and districts that are opium-free. In this way, you can create a real alternative. But for the south you need another solution, which has to do with creating security, with extending the rule of law, with targeting the big traffickers.

I am quite optimistic about Afghanistan. Even though we have seen an increase last year and this year, we have to accept that there will be ups and downs. As the international community, we have to realize that it is a long-term commitment. If we look at other countries that have been major producers of opium, it has taken them maybe 20-25 years to become opium-free.

What does the average Afghan think about the opium trade?

Opium poppy farmer

Some farmers in Afghanistan cultivate opium because they are poor. They don't have access to land, so they need credit. They can lease land on the condition that they also cultivate opium or they can get credit against the future harvest of opium. Then there are farmers who have a lot of other assets as well.  They may have good irrigation, a lot of land, all sorts of assets. For them, it's simply that they make a very good profit. But it also brings with it a lot of insecurity.

When the opium is harvested, what actually happens to it? Is it processed into heroin? Is it exported?

Afghanistan produces more and more heroin. Before, they mainly produced opium and then sold it to Pakistan or Iran for manufacturing morphine and heroin. Now we see more and more heroin being produced within the country. In the south of Afghanistan, it's mainly what is called brown heroin. It's not as refined as the white powder that they are able to manufacture in the north, but it means that they have the technology and the chemicals needed for transforming opium into heroin. And this is crucial because these chemicals are not produced in Afghanistan; they come from other countries.

Opium can be cultivated legally in some countries; why not in Afghanistan? It's one of the poorest countries in the world. Surely it could benefit from this?

Drug seizures

I don't believe in this idea at all-not as things are now. The main reason is that if a Government produces opium for legal purposes, it must be able to ensure that it is not diverted. With the situation in Afghanistan as it is now, this is totally impossible. The Government can never, ever make sure that opium is not diverted. It doesn't have these resources.

You come from Sweden, one of the most affluent countries in the world. How did you cope with the culture shock?

I don't think that the culture issues are the biggest or the most difficult part for us who come from outside. I think it's the fact that you can't lead a normal life. You can't walk the streets, for example. There are very few places you can visit because it can be dangerous. I think you cope with it because there is no choice. In normal circumstances you would always compare your life to somebody else's and say 'I would like to have this' or 'I wish I had that'. There are no such things in Afghanistan.

"We are walking in the right direction. I can see that we have actually been able to help our colleagues in Afghanistan: the judges, prosecutors, policemen, nurses and doctors who work with these issues."

How does UNODC work on drug control projects in a country with such a big drug problem?

Our task is to help the Afghan Government build its own capacity. We train the country's anti-narcotic police, judges, prosecutors and doctors. Perhaps UNODC is better known for the opium surveys, where we estimate the cultivation, the hectares and also the yield. Originally, this was done by international experts, but we have now trained the Afghans to do it themselves. And I expect that in one or two years we'll just review the reports.

We hear a lot about Afghanistan exporting opium and producing heroin, but what about drug addiction?

Afghan border police activities

Afghanistan has a sizeable drug abuse problem, but it is a bit difficult to estimate. Opium addiction is mainly a rural problem, and it has very much to do with the lack of health facilities. People in remote areas-where there are no doctors, no medicines-resort to whatever they have. And they sometimes use it for their children. The parents will smoke opium and then blow the smoke into the mouth of the baby to pacify it. Then they get addicted to it. Heroin addiction is most widely spread among males in the cities. Very often they become addicted as refugees in Iran or Pakistan. And the third problem is a mixture of total lack of control of pharmaceutical drugs and no knowledge, no awareness, of the risks of dependence. So people treat themselves and become addicted. 

What is UNODC doing in Afghanistan to help addicts?

We have built what we call demand reduction action teams in six provinces. But it's a drop in the ocean. So we have started to discuss with the Minister of Public Health the building up of the treatment system. We would like to help them build it into the primary health system. We would train the nurses and midwives to diagnose addiction, to see whether or not they can do something themselves, or whether they need to refer patients to a doctor. By building it into the primary health care system, you can have less expensive interventions and save the more expensive ones for the heroin addicts. 

You've only been based in Afghanistan for a few months, but you obviously know a lot about the country. Do you feel that UNODC is improving the situation?

To work in Afghanistan, you need to be an optimist. You also need to be a pragmatic and realistic person because the success stories are not big in Afghanistan. We are walking in the right direction. I can see that we have actually been able to help our colleagues in Afghanistan: the judges, prosecutors, policemen, nurses and doctors who work with these issues. Not many yet, but every change starts with a very little step in the right direction. 

Louise Potterton is UNODC's radio consultant.

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