WASHIR, Afghanistan — Afghan Taliban rulers have launched a campaign to eradicate poppy cultivation, aiming to wipe out the country’s massive production of opium and heroin, even as farmers fear their livelihoods will be ruined at a time of crisis. increasing poverty.
On a recent day in Washir district of southern Helmand province, armed Taliban fighters stood guard when a tractor tore up a field of poppies. The owner of the field stood by and watched.
The Taliban, who took power in Afghanistan more than nine months ago, issued an edict in early April banning poppy cultivation across the country.
Those who violate the ban “will be arrested and tried under Sharia law in relevant courts,” Taliban deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics, Mullah Abdul Haq Akhund, told The Associated Press in Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer and a major source of heroin in Europe and Asia. Production has risen sharply over the past 20 years, despite billions of dollars spent by the US to stop poppy cultivation.
‘We are not going to earn anything’
But the ban is likely to deal a heavy blow to millions of impoverished farmers and day laborers who depend on crop yields to survive. The ban comes as the Afghan economy has collapsed, cut off from international funding in the wake of the Taliban takeover. Most of the population is struggling to afford food, and the country is suffering its worst drought in years.
Noor Mohammed, who owns a poppy field in Washir that has been torn up by Taliban tractors, said his tract of land is small and has no water, so he cannot survive growing less profitable crops.
“If we can’t grow this crop, we won’t make anything,” he said of his poppies.
Day laborers can earn more than $300 a month harvesting opium from the poppies. Villagers often rely on the promise of the upcoming poppy harvest to borrow money for staples like flour, sugar, cooking oil and heating oil.
Helmand is the heart of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. It appeared that the new eradication campaign mainly targeted those who planted their crops after the ban was announced. Many others who had previously planted managed to harvest, move from plant to plant, cut the poppy’s bulb and then scoop up the sap that seeps out, the raw material for opium.
Akhund, the deputy interior minister, said the Taliban were in contact with other governments and non-governmental organizations to develop alternative crops for farmers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor said the eradication campaign will take place across the country. “We are determined to reduce poppy cultivation to zero,” he told the AP.
It is not known how many poppies have been planted this season, how many have been harvested and how many fields the Taliban have wiped out so far.
But Afghan production has been steadily increasing, reaching new heights every year in recent years. In 2021, 177,000 hectares (438,000 acres) were planted with poppies, yielding enough opium to produce up to 650 tons of heroin, according to estimates by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That was an increase of up to 590 tons of heroin in 2020.
The total value of Afghanistan’s opiate production in 2021 was $1.8-2.7 billion, up 14% of the country’s GDP, more than the value of its legal exports, the UNODC said in its most recent report.
Swept away under the Taliban, recovered after US invasion
During their first rise to power in the late 1990s, the Taliban also banned poppy cultivation, and with a fierce campaign to destroy croplands, production was nearly wiped out within two years, the United Nations said.
However, after the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001, many farmers returned to growing poppies.
Over the next nearly 20 years, Washington spent more than $8 billion to eradicate Afghan poppy production. Instead, it only steadily increased: in 2002, about 75,000 hectares were planted with poppies, accounting for some 3,400 tons of opium. Last year production was double.
During the Taliban’s years of insurgency, the movement has reportedly made millions of dollars taxing farmers and middlemen to transport their drugs outside of Afghanistan. Senior officials of the US-backed government have also reportedly made millions from the booming drug trade.
Today, Afghanistan’s opium production is greater than all other opium-producing countries combined. Nearly 80% of heroin produced from Afghan opium reaches Europe through Central Asia and Pakistan.