For the first time since 2009, poppy production in Afghanistan is on the decline with overall production sliding to nearly half of what it was in 2014.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its full 2015 Afghan opium report today, noting that poppy production in Afghanistan would likely amount to 3,300 tons in 2015, a decrease of 48 per cent from the 6,400 tons reported the previous year.
The UNODC executive director, Yury Fedotov, welcomed the news as evidence of "hard-won achievements" resulting from successful antinarcotics policy. The regional UNODC representative, likewise, attributed the production decline to improved cooperation between law enforcement agencies and Afghan policy makers.
But these pronouncements may be undercut by the analysis of independent experts, who noted that the decline was more likely due to overproduction, a stabilization of market prices or, perhaps, by a more simple explanation: the environment. More specifically, growers may have depleted existing soils or been driven further into arid, infertile stretches of the country, where the soil cannot support opium production.
"It is not unusual for the drug control community to attribute reductions in cultivation to its own actions even where there is insufficient evidence to support such a claim," said former UNODC employee David Mansfield in a blog post following the release of preliminary UNODC data.
The southern region of Afghanistan, which accounts for 58 percent of national crop totals, is a former desert and, according to Mansfield, crop failure has become an increasing concern in the region. Growers originally took to the area, he said, in a process of "encroachment and settlement of former desert areas formally recognized as 'government land'" due to the increasing presence of troops, violence, and a lack of economic opportunities in the traditional growing regions.
Now that opium prices have dropped, the thin profit margin on production has likely driven growers to abandon their fields. "In their heyday these former desert areas were a potential route out of poverty for some, and a source of asset accumulation for others," he wrote, but, "farmers just cannot afford the high production costs, the diesel, the maintenance, and the labor without a decent yield from their opium crop."
As researchers noted in the UNODC survey, opium cultivation decreased over the past year in most of the main poppy-growing provinces, but climbed in non-traditional growing provinces further to the north.
Desertification continues to pose a threat to development in Afghanistan, a country known for its arid environment. As the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) notes, this vulnerability is compounded by long-standing conflict, widespread poverty, food insecurity, and a "strong dependence on rain-fed agriculture with minimal arable land."
While the UNODC report does not specifically address the role of environmental factors in the decline of opium production, there are some implicit acknowledgements that conditions have impacted the viability of crops.
In one passage, the authors state that "climatic conditions, such as lack of water or soil degradation that have affected yields in the South and West might have directly reduced land available for opium poppy cultivation." They add that in the southern Nimroz province, which is generally arid, "land available for agriculture in general reduced by 19 percent between 2014 and 2015."
One of the agency's lead researchers acknowledges there is evidence that the environment could have played a role in declining production, despite the environment not being a focus of the annual survey.
"Fields of poppy have been under cultivation for many years, and this has reduced the capacity of the soil – degradation may have played a role in this decrease," said Angela Me, the head of the Research and Trend Analysis Branch at the UNODC. "And the irrigation used on the fields has created salinization — these fields, after some years, turn entirely white."
For Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institute, the fact that growers are moving into areas that are less suitable for cultivation is likely the result of increased surveillance and the presence of international forces in traditional growing areas — in this way, she says, it's that the growers are moving into adverse environmental conditions, rather than the conditions coming to them.
"After the [2009 troop surge], the presence of NATO troops pushed farmers into sub-optimal areas, where there was enough speculation for cultivation, and conditions were not auspicious elsewhere," said Felbab-Brown. "You have policies that are resulting with problematic cropping, and setting up inappropriate environmental conditions for cultivation."
But the possible environmental drivers and implications of poppy production in Afghanistan, according to UNODC researcher Me, is "not something that we have looked at in great detail." This is something she says will change in coming years, however, noting that the environment will play a larger role in the UNODC annual World Drug Report due out in June.
When asked if the link was of growing concern to the traditionally policy-focused agency, she said "definitely," adding that they were "making a stronger link between environment and production."
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