Food prices alone won’t stop Afghan opium growers: experts
by Bronwen Roberts
KABUL, June 6, 2008 (AFP) – Global food price rises may push some Afghan farmers to plant wheat instead of opium but officials say any real switch will only come from government pressure as poppies are still more profitable.
This year’s worldwide jump in prices has hit impoverished Afghanistan hard, with wheat — the country’s dietary staple food — doubling in some areas and reports of people eating grass to survive.
Opium, of which Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of world supply, is planted at roughly the same time as wheat, at the end of the year.
The recent hikes were too late to influence the last sowing season, and agencies working to slash opium production are looking to the next planting period, around October-November, to see if farmers will make the switch.
Loren Stoddard from the US government’s aid agency USAID is hopeful.
‘The food security crisis, while it is going to hurt people, is going to make the point to everyone in Afghanistan that poppy is not such a great business,’ he said in an interview.
‘You can’t eat it… it’s a hard lesson this year,’ said Stoddard, the group’s director of alternative development and agriculture in Afghanistan.
The rising prices mean farmers could earn more with wheat than before, especially if yields are improved via better irrigation, seeds and fertilizer, said UN Food and Agriculture Organisation representative Tekeste Tekie.
‘I don’t know to what degree but the price itself is a good incentive to encourage them to switch,’ he said.
Soaring food prices have sparked hunger, poverty and violence around the world, prompting a UN summit this week on how to tackle the crisis.
Still, the gap in profits from essential wheat and illegal opium remains huge.
A hectare (2.47 acres) of wheat under irrigation can earn a farmer 1,500 dollars, said the FAO. The same area of opium can bring in about 5,000 dollars, said the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in a report in February.
This is one reason UNODC representative Christina Oguz said a significant switch to wheat was unlikely, with the rise in food prices perhaps even resulting in farmers returning to the illegal crop.
‘If food prices go up in areas where poor farmers have stopped cultivating opium and they do not get support to survive… then there is a risk that they will go back to cultivating opium again next year,’ she said.
Besides the price, opium offers farmers security in the form of loans from buyers of the drug and because it can be kept for years without deteriorating, a key factor in a country lacking cold storage facilities and roads to markets.
‘You can get a loan if the only security you provide is the future harvest,’ Oguz said. ‘You can’t get that for wheat or carrots.’
‘You know that there is always a market for it, it is not as difficult to store as potatoes or wheat.’
She added: ‘Traders come to your doorstep and they get it from you. You don’t have to do anything more than sow it and harvest it.’
There has been some success this year in ridding whole provinces of opium fields, Counternarcotics Minister General Khodaidad has said.
He told AFP he expected a survey underway to put the number of ‘poppy-free’ provinces at 20 out of 34, up from 13 last year.
These provinces are mostly in the relatively stable north, where strong leaders have been able to spread the anti-opium message and focus on what farmers need to keep away from poppies.
However, if authorities ‘don’t support the farmers, of course they will go again to grow poppy,’ Khodaidad said in northeastern Badakhshan province, long one of the nation’s top producers and this year likely to be ‘opium-free.’
Afghanistan’s real drugs headache is, however, in the south and southwest where around two-thirds of the opium is grown and much of it converted into heroin, the form in which about 60 percent of opium leave the country.
The drugs also finance a Taliban-led insurgency that is more virulent in those areas where government authority is also the weakest.
Opium growers in these main producing parts generally have ‘the best land, the best irrigation, the best road support,’ said Stoddard, playing down the ‘poor farmer’ argument.
While food prices may help, the real success in forcing farmers off opium will be firm action from the authorities.
‘Economic incentives alone generally do not change people’s decisions,’ he said.
‘The thing that pushes them over the edge is strong law enforcement, strong government leadership.’