Kabul / Vienna, 3 January 2024 - To many in Afghanistan, poppy has long meant survival.
Decades of conflict, natural disasters, and few economic opportunities have compelled many to turn to growing the flower – used to produce opium – as a last resort.
“We do not want to grow poppy,” noted Mullah Tur Jan, chairman of a Community Development Council, referring to the population in Lashkargah, the capital of Hilmand province. “But we have no other alternative to feed our children.”
As a result, for years Afghanistan has been the world’s foremost supplier of opium. As recently as 2022, the country supplied 80 per cent of the global supply of the drug, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
But after the sudden power shift in August 2021, the de facto authorities imposed a ban on poppy cultivation in April 2022.
As shown by the new 2023 UNODC Afghan opium survey, opium cultivation in Afghanistan has plummeted 95 per cent since the Taliban’s ruling took effect.
Suddenly, poppy farmers everywhere – many of whom had turned to poppy cultivation out of desperation in the first place – were pushed back into poverty.
Farmers who decided to stick with cultivating opium saw their income from the 2023 harvest fall by more than 92 per cent from an estimated US$1,360 million for the 2022 harvest to US$110 million in 2023, the survey noted.
Many farmers decided to turn to growing wheat instead, with the survey finding an overall increase of 160,000 hectares in cereal cultivation across the Farah, Hilmand, Kandahar, and Nangahar provinces. But wheat is not nearly as lucrative as opium – farmers in the four provinces lost around US$ 1 billion in potential income in 2023, according to the survey.
Farmers who grow “low value, licit crops” often do not have access to seeds for other crops like okra or peas, Mullah Tur Jan explained. “We [also] have limited access to irrigation water and markets to sell our products,” he added, compounding the problem.
Both before and after the transition of power in the country, UNODC has worked to provide sustainable livelihoods to communities in Afghanistan that cultivate illicit drug crops because they are unable to obtain sufficient income from legal activities due to conflict or lack of markets, basic infrastructure, or land.
Known as Alternative Development initiatives, examples of past and ongoing UNODC programmes have provided vulnerable communities with certified cauliflower or maize seeds, chickens, milk processing instruments, drip irrigation systems, and training for how to grow, manage, and sell their products.
“My children became sick from working on the poppy field and were often unable to attend school,” says Ghyasuddin, one participant in the Alternative Development programme in the Nad-e-Ali district of Hilmand province, when asked why he decided to quit growing poppy. “I know many people who are addicted to opium and some friends have lost their lives. We must erase this threat from our community.”
Provided with training, maize seeds, fertilizers, and gardening tools, Ghyasuddin established two jeribs of maize farm, which “allows me to cover household expenses for all my family members,” he says.
Gul Agha, another former poppy farmer in Hilmand province, connected with the Alternative Development programme after the ban and received certified cauliflower seeds and fertilizers, as well as training on how to cultivate vegetable crops. He now makes 60,000 Afghanis (USD 682) from selling cauliflower in a season from half a jerib (0.2 hectare) of land –8,000 more Afghanis than he had earned from cultivating poppy on the same plot.
Farmers across the village now visit Gul Agha’s plot to learn from his techniques. “I did not know that cauliflower production could be more profitable than poppy,” he marvels.
Babri Bibi, a divorced mother of three also living in Hilmand province, “did not even have a single piece of bread” in her home when she joined the Alternative Development programme. Implemented by the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR), the programme helped her establish a small backyard poultry farm and provided her with 20 young hens and other necessary farm management tools, medicine, and training on farm management.
“My chickens now lay 15 eggs per day, which makes it possible for my children to have nutritious food,” she shares. “I use my income to buy food and other much needed items, such as pens and notebooks for my children.”
Another Alternative Development programme in Nangarhar province provided solar power systems, drip irrigation materials, training, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) kits to rehabilitate the citrus orchards of 500 farmers who – due to drought and conflict – had turned to cultivating poppy.
Mohammad Iqbal’s two-hectare lemon orchard soon began supplying fruit again, and in 2022 he harvested 115.5 tons of lemon, worth approximately AFN 3,300,000 (US$ 37,930).
“These trees not only bring fruit to our village,” notes Mohammad proudly, “but beauty, too.”
As encouraging as these stories are, the ban on opium cultivation has immediate humanitarian consequences for many vulnerable rural communities. As noted by Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC:
“This presents a real opportunity to build towards long-term results against the illicit opium market and the damage it causes both locally and globally,” said Ms. Waly. “At the same time, there are important consequences and risks that need to be addressed for an outcome that is ultimately positive and sustainable, especially for the people of Afghanistan.
“Today, Afghanistan’s people need urgent humanitarian assistance to meet their most immediate needs, to absorb the shock of lost income and to save lives,” Ms. Waly added. “And over the coming months, Afghanistan is in dire need of strong investment in sustainable livelihoods, to provide Afghan farmers with opportunities away from opium.”