Monitoring illicit crop production

Measuring the opium poppy capsule helps estimate crop production27 May 2008 - Monitoring the cultivation and yield of illicit crops - or crop monitoring - is a critical aspect of UNODC's work. Estimating global illicit drug production and identifying trends help countries design appropriate drug control policies and alternative livelihood strategies.

UNODC conducts illicit crop monitoring in seven countries. These cover the main opium poppy producing areas (Afghanistan, Myanmar, Laos), the main coca producing areas (Bolivia, Colombia, Peru) and one of the main cannabis producing countries (Morocco).

To provide internationally credible estimates of illicit drug production, UNODC has developed accepted and comparable methodologies and definitions together with Member States and other partners. The Office has also strengthened capacity within the seven countries to themselves be involved in crop monitoring.   

Basic monitoring techniques include field and village assessments, fly-over verifications, interviews, statistical and socio-economic analysis, use of satellite imagery and geographic spatial data. Each of the seven countries is responsible for smaller or larger parts of the surveys depending on their resources, capacity and technical know-how. UNODC lends specialized or financial support where and when it is required.

Illicit crop monitoring presents constant challenges for those working on the ground ranging from simple climatic conditions, to changes in cultivation patterns, to insecurity. Monitoring techniques thus require constant flexibility, fine-tuning and adaptation. Coca detection, for instance, is not easy because the plant can be sowed and harvested virtually any time of the year, mixed with other crops, hidden under plantations and shifted into new areas. Insecurity is a particular challenge. It not only hinders physical access to specific locations but also influences the ease with which data can be extracted.

Afghanistan , the world's largest illicit opium producer, is a good example. "Every single step of crop monitoring is a challenge", explains Hakan Demirbuken, UNODC Regional Expert. "We are talking about an illegal activity, from which people earn money. Those involved will resent your meddling in their affairs. Last year the total export value of Afghan opium was around US$ 3.1 billion." Drug traffickers and anti-government forces encourage farmers to grow opium poppy.

Crop monitoring in Afghanistan relies on hundreds of ground surveyors working in some of the country's insecure areas. "So far, there haven't been any direct attacks on our surveyors while in the field. There have, however, been incidents of obstruction by drug dealers or anti-government factions", explains Demirbuken. Recently, one surveyor was killed in the cross-fire as anti-government factions attacked the Governor's building in Jalalabad. 

In southern Afghanistan, surveyors do not travel with equipment that might attract attention. "They don't travel to villages as surveyors and they use their own networks and customs to go about their work", says Demirbuken. To reduce risk, UNODC selects surveyors from local communities who go to great lengths to build confidence with local leaders and farmers. 

More information on crop monitoring.