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Afghan Think-Tank Study Predicts More Poppy Cultivation for the Year 2017

in Afghan Business

Afghan Think-Tank Study Predicts More Poppy  Cultivation for the Year 2017

The results of a new study, conducted by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) with financial support from the European Union, indicate more opium poppy cultivation in Helmand in 2017 than in the province’s past years, including the previous peak of an estimated 103,590 hectares in 2008.

“The increase is such that opium production in Helmand in 2017 could well surpass previous records for the country as a whole,” the report “Truly Unprecedented: How the Helmand Food Zone supported an increase in the province’s capacity to produce opium” states.

According to the study, the explanation for these unprecedented levels of opium poppy cultivation in Helmand lie, at least in part, with the socio-economic and political processes that were accelerated by the Helmand Food Zone (HFZ).

The HFZ was launched in the fall of 2008 and its goal was to bring about a rapid and significant reduction in opium cultivation. The initiative was funded directly by the UK and US governments to the tune of between US$12 and $18 million per year between the autumn of 2008 and 2012. The program ran alongside a massive increase in the number of international and Afghan military forces fighting in Helmand and rises in the amount of development assistance known as “the surge.”

“Over the course of the HFZ and the surge, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) helped the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) extend its writ across central Helmand; security bases were placed on every junction, access to government services including health and education improved substantially and the level of opium poppy cultivation fell dramatically from 103,590 hectares in 2008 to 63,307 hectares in 2011,” the study says.

But where do things stand now, five years since the end of the HFZ and three years after the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Helmand? The study draws on in-depth fieldwork and high-resolution imagery taken between 2008 and 2017 to reveal how unsustainable the HFZ and the surge have been.

The HFZ plan was designed to be straightforward; communities in central Helmand would be offered incentives in the form of development inputs as well as threatened with disincentives of law enforcement to dissuade them from opium poppy cultivation. Those farmers that received agricultural inputs – typically a package of wheat seed and fertiliser – did so on the proviso that they sign an agreement to cease poppy cultivation altogether.

In terms of disincentives, the initial plan was for the HFZ to incorporate a range of law enforcement efforts that included action against traffickers and processing facilities as well as crop destruction. However, it proved difficult to coordinate and target what was largely a separate interdiction effort under the auspices of Afghan and foreign law enforcement officials. This left those with the responsibility for the management of the HFZ with crop destruction as their only tool for discouraging opium production.
To tie these different components of the HFZ together an information campaign was launched in the fall of each year by the provincial governor. The intention of the initiative was to raise awareness of the HFZ and its objectives among farmers and rural communities in the hope of deterring cultivation, primarily by increasing the perceived threat of eradication in the spring if farmers did not comply.

According to the study, the ban on opium in the canal command area imposed by the HFZ, along with the focus on replacing poppy with wheat, created a mobile labor force skilled in poppy cultivation in search of a livelihood and a place to live.

“While farmers had already begun to settle the former desert lands north of the Boghra prior to the HFZ, rates of settlement and the intensity of poppy cultivation both increased following the imposition of the ban in the canal command area,” the study adds.

“Perhaps of even greater concern was the dramatic rise in cultivation in the Food Zone itself in 2017. In late 2016 the ANDSF was routed and the insurgency gained the upper hand in the canal-irrigated parts of Central Helmand,” the study states and adds: “This established the conditions that allowed increasing numbers of farmers to commit their land to opium poppy. And while cultivation did not yet reach the peak that were seen in 2007 and 2008 there was significantly more opium in districts like Nad-e Ali, Marjah and even in the district of Lashkar Gah, than had been seen for many years.”

This study is based on in-depth fieldwork and high-resolution imagery undertaken in April and May 2017 in 20 research sites in central Helmand. In total 300 interviews were conducted with rural households, 180 interviews in 12 research sites within the Helmand Food Zone, and 120 interviews in 8 research sites to the north of the Boghra canal. Supplementary data collection was also gathered from those providing services to these communities, including those trading in herbicides, solar panels, and diesel. This paper also draws on a body of fieldwork in these same research sites that dates back to 2008 and consists of over 3,000 detailed household interviews.​

Furthermore, high-resolution, remote sensing imagery was integral to the research design. Geospatial data was used to identify research sites based on their histories of poppy cultivation, crop destruction and development assistance, including the wheat seed and fertiliser provided under the Food Zone Initiative. To capture how responses to the Helmand Food Zone vary by location, socio-economic, group and resource endowments, geospatial data on vegetative index, proximity to markets, and cropping seasons was also used in the selection of research sites.

The study highlights the role the HFZ played in what are unprecedented levels of opium poppy cultivation in Helmand in 2017 and shows how difficult it will be for the Government of Afghanistan to wrest back control of central Helmand, in part as a consequence of the HFZ and its attempt to ban opium production.

Tags assigned to this article:
Afghanistan opiumAfghanistan poppy

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