Afghans need sustainable alternatives to opium

July 1, 2024
Woman in hijab walks through greenhouse

Replacing the income from opium farming requires substantial investment in alternative livelihoods and drought-resistant agriculture.

UNDP Afghanistan

For decades Afghanistan was the leading illicit opium producer, accounting for 70 percent of the world’s output. The vast opium industry with far-reaching tentacles encompassed farmers, traffickers, warlords, and authorities, and funded the country’s wartime operations.

A ban by the Afghan de facto authorities in 2022 slashed poppy cultivation by more than 92 percent. It dramatically cut the production and distribution chain. However solving one problem can be the genesis of another. Like the physical and psychological dependency it builds in users, opium has kept the Afghan economy in its clutches. It ran deep within the nation’s fabric, creating a cycle of instability and underdevelopment that saw annual revenue plummet from US$1.3 billion in 2022 to $110 million in 2023. Recent estimates, assuming a sustained 70 percent reduction, project a 6.4 percent reduction in GDP for the first estimated year, reaching nearly eight percent by 2026.

Behind these figures are local farmers, by some estimates nearly 600,000, who have been plunged into poverty from the loss of one of Afghanistan’s few sustained sources of income. Given the opium trade's influence on the economy, a decline in production affects other industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and services. Already the furniture and construction sectors have been hit with lower revenues and waning demand. It is also expected that it will affect trade, with a reduction of almost a fifth of exports, as other products rely on established opium trading networks.

Replacing the massive poppy industry is no small feat, as The Washington Post recently reported, it requires substantial investment in alternative livelihoods and drought-resistant agriculture. Poppy cultivation thrived largely because of its high drought tolerance and economic returns. 

Making an economically viable transition to alternative crops or industries can stimulate growth and create sustainable livelihoods, provided that supportive policies and international support help stabilize the transition. 

Addressing the issue requires a regional perspective. With Afghan opium on the decline, Myanmar is picking up the slack, with an 18 percent increase in poppy cultivation since the 95 percent falloff in Afghanistan. Global opium supply networks have detoured to Myanmar's borders, where a weak state and ongoing conflicts provide fertile ground. This shift emphasizes the complexities of controlling drug crops in remote, unstable regions, and highlights the need for a comprehensive global strategy.

Meanwhile, despite the reduction in poppy cultivation, domestic addiction remains alarmingly high, at close to 10 percent, dwarfing the country’s rehabilitation programmes. While international markets often dominate the discussion, drug use in Afghanistan profoundly affects the social fabric, particularly among young people. Afghanistan has long struggled with high addiction rates. In a cruel cyclical irony, some appear to be resorting to drug use to cope with the deepening poverty caused by the loss of income from poppies. 

Exacerbating these conditions is the spike in methamphetamine production and trafficking. A balanced approach, blending supply-side interventions like the opium ban with demand reduction and public health strategies, is essential to remediate drug use and its social consequences. 

UNDP’s multi-pronged efforts in Afghanistan present a promising path forward. With approximately $90 million in funding from the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, UNDP’s Community-Based Agriculture and Rural Development (CBARD) Project, is supporting thousands of former poppy cultivators in the switch to high-value horticultural crops. Covering six provinces known for poppy cultivation, the initiative has transformed over 2,000 hectares of land, benefiting around 60,000 households.

Inspiring examples motivate further action. Aisha (not her real name) through this programme has established a women-led tomato processing unit in Balkh Province. This venture processes and packages tomato paste, empowering more than 400 female farmers. Like her business, many others are providing much-needed job and leadership opportunities for women. UNDP has supported over 100 Afghan agro-businesses and facilitated trade missions, leading to substantial international sales of Afghan products, primarily dried fruits and nuts. 

There are ways to break the old patterns of individual and economic dependencies. However, finding high-value legal alternatives to opium poppy cultivation remains challenging. Sufficient water sources in a land beset by drought is one. Drought-resistant crops and ensuring a more sustainable water supply for irrigation will be critical. 

The market for these products is another. The income from one hectare of opium in 2022 was around $6,800, while wheat brought only $770. Crops such as saffron, nuts and fruits can fetch higher prices than wheat. Despite this, their income potential per hectare remains significantly lower than from opium.

UNDP has bolstered the ecosystem for private sector development. The programme has established over 1,000 commercial and micro-greenhouses, more than 100 irrigation projects in this water-scarce country, and over 20 post-harvest handling facilities to preserve the quality of high-value crops.

At the same time, UNDP is working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to gather high-quality data through the National Survey on Drug Use in Afghanistan, to provide crucial insights for formulating effective prevention and treatment strategies.

Investing in sustainable alternatives to poppy cultivation is about equipping Afghan farmers with viable alternatives and the resources and support to make a lasting transition toward a stable, drug-free future. Only by tackling the many tentacles of this issue, can stability and growth replace addiction and subsistence. The international community can help ensure that this progress is not a fleeting mirage, like the highs of addiction, but a firm step towards lasting prosperity.