The good news in Afghanistan is that for the first time since 2009, the area estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to be used in illicit opium poppy cultivation has decreased.
But of course, it’s not that simple.
As noted in a report released Wednesday by the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), despite the fact that the area estimated to be used for opium poppy has decreased from 224,000 hectares in 2014 to 183,000 hectares in 2015, “the level of illicit opium cultivation in Afghanistan continues to be high in absolute terms.” Even though estimated potential opium production fell 48 percent in comparison to last year’s estimates, it still rests at 3,330 metric tons (or 7.3 million pounds).
Both the INCB report released this week and the UNODC annual report on Afghanistan’s poppy problem released in December are sober in assessing what these decreases do and don’t say about the overall issue in Afghanistan. From the INCB report:
Although this development is potentially significant for the drug control situation in the region, the reasons behind it are complex: a water shortage during the reporting period affected the opium yield; Government-led eradication efforts increased in the past years; and the estimation methodology has been improved, which makes comparison less straightforward.
In the UNODC’s annual Afghanistan Opium Survey 2015, the authors stress that “Caution is needed when interpreting these results: between 2014 and 2015, the availability of improved technology led to a major improvement in the methodology used to estimate area under poppy cultivation.” The note of caution continues on to highlight that further research confirms the directionality (the decrease), but the extent of the change may still appear greater than it actually was.
While eradication measures seem to remain a core strategy, they are clearly not a sustainable one. The number of poppy-free provinces fell in 2015, with the reappearance of the crop in Balkh. The INCB recommended that the Afghan government pursue not just eradication, but “strengthen its efforts to address widespread drug abuse,” and also noted “the fundamental role played by alternative development initiatives in curbing opium poppy cultivation and providing farmers with legitimate means for supporting themselves and their families.”
Crop substitution is one solution that achieved some degree of success–though only when supported by funding. Opium cultivation previously fell between 2007 and 2010 before rising again. In the 2015 UNODC survey, the authors point out that an “alternative livelihood program” in Helmand seems to be having a lasting effect of sorts. In the area of the “Food Zone” program, which stretched across ten districts in Helmand where farmers were given fertilizer, wheat, and other seeds during the 2009-2012 poppy seasons, poppy cultivation between 2014 and 2015 fell at a greater rate than than it did outside the zone. “Opium poppy cultivation inside the former Food Zone decreased by 32 percent in 2015… and to a lesser extent outside of the former Food Zone by 13 percent.”
Just as the ICNB’s report prefaces noting declines with the disclaimer that the reasons behind the reductions are complex, a disclaimer is needed on proposed solutions: these too will be complex. Afghanistan’s poppy problem isn’t just economic or environmental; it’s tinged with politics and corruption, and influenced by security. And although Afghanistan is the world’s predominant producer of illegal opium, drugs don’t buy themselves. At the ICNB’s report launch in Mexico City, Alejandro Mohar, a member of the board, commented that “In different parts of the United States there has been a resurgence in the consumption of heroin and Afghan heroin has an enormous production. They have more than 200 thousand hectares dedicated to the production of heroin in Afghanistan. The northern area of North America, Canada, is turning into one of the areas of greatest reception.” The report notes that better controls on prescription opioids in North America has contributed to the resurgence of demand for heroin, which is available in ample supply from Afghanistan and Mexico.