Helmand (Afghanistan), 4 January 2023 – According to the 2022 opium survey, Helmand remains the leading opium-producing province in Afghanistan, with one-fifth of arable land dedicated to opium poppy.
Farmers in Helmand have grown opium poppy for years due to a lack of opportunity to earn their livelihood growing licit crops. Decades of conflict, natural disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all exacerbated the situation, with farmers continuing to resort to production, processing, and trade of opium.
In the more than 20 years that Gul Agha has been a farmer, he did not expect to become a trailblazer and influencer in his community.
Poverty and lack of a sustainable livelihood pushed Gul Agha into poppy farming. The sudden power shift in August 2021 and rapid economic downturn that followed pushed many farmers into severe poverty. This situation worsened when the de facto authorities suddenly banned poppy cultivation in April 2022.
Farmers such as Gul Agha desperately needed to find another profitable source of income, but with their existing skills and knowledge, the situation looked bleak. Gul Agha’s immediate options were to migrate to a neighbouring country and take up labour work or continue with poppy cultivation despite the ban. He found neither path feasible.
That is when he decided to approach the community development council (CDC)1 in his village, who connected Gul Agha to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s alternative development (AD) project. The project supports licit livelihoods and sensitizes farmers and community leaders to the hazards of opium production and the benefits of cultivating licit crops, such as maize, wheat and vegetables.
Gul Agha was initially skeptical of whether vegetable cultivation would help him make ends meet, because it hadn’t done so before. But he was quick to find out that the reason for that was that he lacked certified seeds and fertilizers. The AD project provided him with training, certified cauliflower seeds and fertilizers to cultivate half-jerib land.
“I have learned how to sow seeds in the line system; to protect plants from diseases, pests, and weeds; to effectively harvest, store, and market the produce; and to prepare natural pesticides,” he shares.
The results have been highly positive. Gul Agha now earns AFN 60,000 (USD 682) per season from selling cauliflower grown on half-jerib land. This is AFN 8,000 per season more than he earnt from poppy cultivation on the same-quality land.
Gul Agha’s cauliflower farm has become a demonstration plot for other farmers in his village, Lashkarbazar. Seeing the success of his endeavour, farmers now approach him to learn the techniques he uses for profitable cauliflower production. Gul Agha is proud that he has become a community influencer.
Working on the poppy fields is an arduous task that puts labourers at risk of lumbago and leg pain from working half-bowed for hours, and of extensive exposure to raw opium including inhaling opiate odour.
In the nearby district of Nad-e-Ali, Ghyasuddin had also been growing poppy for many years to make ends meet. Seeing his children’s health deteriorate when they worked with him on the farm, he was keen to stop cultivating poppy.
Ghyasuddin was introduced to the AD project in March 2022, through which he began exploring a safer and better livelihood for himself. He was provided with training, maize seeds, fertilizers, and gardening tools such as shovel, rack and scythe.
With the project’s support he established two jeribs of maize farm and has been satisfied with his yields and the resulting improvements in his income from selling maize at the local market.
“Earlier we could only make maize bread to sell, but now we earn a daily income of AFN 700 from selling roasted maize cobs. This allows me to cover household expenses for all my family members,” he says.
As his income grew, Ghyasuddin observed that many in his community could benefit as he has from this shift to maize production. Today, Ghyasuddin’s maize field is also a demonstration plot in his community and his neighbours also approach him for farming and seed-sewing advice.
When asked why he was keen on making his village poppy-free, Ghyasuddin said, “My children got sick from working on the poppy field and were often unable to attend school. I know many people who are addicted to opium and some friends have lost their lives. We must erase this threat from our community.”
1The CDC is a local set-up established by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. Each CDC has around 350 members. This number differs in each community depending on its total population.
Since March 2022 UNODC has been implementing an alternative livelihoods and food security project in Lashkargah, Nad-e-Ali and Nahr-e-Siraj districts, in partnership with the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR).
The project aims to give vulnerable Afghan farmers opportunities to engage in licit farming to improve their food security and household income. The project supports cereal crops, maize and wheat as drought-resilient crops that need less water than opium poppy.
Farmer beneficiaries receive certified seeds, fertilizer and capacity building on crop cultivation, harvesting and marketing. As of December 2022, a total of 14,217 vulnerable individuals from 2031 households have been supported through this project.
UNODC's alternative development programme contributes directly towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and indirectly to SDG 5 (Gender Equality) through providing quality feed for men and women involved in animal husbandry.