“This year could be a turning point” in the fight against opium production in Afghanistan. So says Kai Eide, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Afghanistan. Poppy production in Afghanistan has increased every year since 2002. But in 2008 there was a small reduction. Mr. Eide said he anticipates further decreases in opium cultivation this year.
The number of opium-free provinces could rise from 18 to 22 out of 34 Afghan provinces. “It means that poppy production is no longer an Afghanistan-wide phenomenon, but is more and more limited to a smaller number of provinces in the South. And even here,” said Mr. Eide, “we can see a significant reduction.”
Success in the fight against drug cultivation is critical because the Taliban are major beneficiaries of the opium trade. The UN estimates that the total export value of last year’s poppy crop to have been nearly 3.5 billion dollars. Informal taxes and traffickers might have helped war lords, drug lords and insurgents collect up to $500 million. The drug trade is also increasing official corruption in Afghanistan.
According to the UN the price of opium has fallen by about 20 percent over the last year, mainly due to overproduction during the past 3 years. The high price of wheat was the primary reason farmers cited for not growing poppies this year. Government anti-drug initiatives were also cited as deterrents to growing opium. These circumstances, said Kai Eide, have created an opportunity for the Afghan government and the international community to deal the poppy industry a significant blow.
The U.S. is doing its part. Through its Alternative Livelihoods Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development is helping Afghan farmers develop alternatives to opium poppy cultivation. In addition, the Good Performers’ Initiative supports economic development in provinces where there is a commitment by provincial governors and local communities to forgo poppy production and maintain a poppy-free province. In these provinces, USAID will fund publicly-determined assistance projects.
With the commitment of local Afghan governments and help from the international community, Afghanistan has the opportunity to turn its back on opium production and the destruction it brings with it.