Afghanistan’s security troubles are closely intertwined with the trafficking of poppy, Afghanistan’s largest cash crop. The UN has previously estimated that 90% of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan. This is a staggering number, but a new report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan may actually be on the decline.

The total opium cultivation in 2008 in Afghanistan is estimated at 157,000 hectares (ha), an 19% reduction compared to 2007. Unlike previous years, 98% of the total cultivation is confined to seven provinces with security problems: five of these provinces are in the south and two in the west of Afghanistan.

Of the 34 provinces in the country, 18 were poppy-free in 2008 compared to 13 in 2007. This includes the eastern province of Nangarhar, which was the number two cultivator in 2007 and now is free from opium cultivation. At the district level, 297 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts were poppy-free in 2008. Only a tiny portion of the total cultivation took place in the north (Baghlan and Faryab), north-east (Badakhshan) and east (Kunar, Laghman and Kapisa). Together, these regions accounted for less than 2% of cultivation. The seven southern and western provinces that contributed to 98% of Afghan opium cultivation and production are Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Daykundi, Zabul, Farah and Nimroz. This clearly highlights the strong link between opium cultivation and the lack of security.

The total opium production in 2008 is estimated at 7,700 metric tons (mt), a 6% reduction
compared to production in 2007. Almost all of the production (98%) takes place in the same seven provinces where the cultivation is concentrated and where the yield per hectare was relatively higher than in the rest of the country. All the other provinces contributed only 2% to the total opium production in the country.

The gross income for farmers who cultivated opium poppy was estimated at US$ 730 million in 2008. This is a decrease from 2007, when farmgate income for opium was estimated at US $1 billion.

The report says that a combination of successful counter-narcotics strategies and a drought have contributed to this decline. To sustain this trend in places where a drought was largely responsible for declining opium cultivation, the report recommends urgent international action to provide farmers with viable alternatives. The security of Afghanistan may hang in the balance.

UPDATE: Read Patrick Barry on how market forces have contributed to this decline.

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