Area under opium poppy cultivation increased by 63% since 2016, reaching a new record high
The total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 328,000 hectares in 2017, a 63% increase or 127,000 hectares more compared to the previous year. This level of opium poppy cultivation is a new record high and exceeds the formerly highest value recorded in 2014 (224,000 hectares) by 104,000 hectares or 46%.
Strong increases were observed in almost all major poppy cultivating provinces. In Hilmand province alone, cultivation increased by 63,700 hectares (+79%) which accounted for about half of the total national increase. Strong increases were observed also in Balkh (+10,000 hectares or almost five times more than in 2016), Kandahar (+7,500 hectares or +37%), Nimroz (+6,200 hectares or +116%), and Uruzgan (+6,000 hectares or +39%).
The majority (60%) of cultivation took place in the South of the country. The Western region accounted for 17% of total cultivation, the Northern region for 13% and the Eastern region for 7%. The remaining regions (North-eastern and Central) together accounted for 3%. Hilmand remained the country’s major opium poppy cultivating province, followed by Kandahar, Badghis, Faryab, Uruzgan, Nangarhar, Farah, Balkh, Nimroz and Badakhshan. Opium poppy cultivation expanded to new regions and intensified where there was cultivation before
In 2017, the number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan decreased from 13 to 10. The number of provinces affected by opium poppy cultivation increased from 21 to 24. Ghazni, Samangan and Nuristan provinces lost their poppy-free status. Ghazni had been poppy-free for more than two decades (since 1995), Samangan and Nuristan for almost 10 years (since 2007).
Starting in 2014, the Northern region experienced a rapid expansion of opium poppy cultivation. In 2014, a total of 574 hectares was cultivated in three out of seven provinces (Baghlan, Faryab and Sari-Pul); in 2017, only one province remained poppy-free (Bamyan) and some 43,000 hectares were cultivated in the other six provinces.
Cultivation in Balkh, which was poppy-free until 2014, expanded from 204 hectares in 2015 to 12,100 hectares in 2017. In Jawzjan, which was poppy-free between 2008 and 2015, cultivation increased from 409 hectares in 2016 to 3,200 hectares in 2017. In Sari-Pul (last time poppy-free in 2013), cultivation expanded from 195 hectares in 2014 to 3,600 hectares in 2017.
Opium poppy cultivation intensified in the main opium-poppy cultivating provinces by holding a more significant share of the available agricultural land. In Hilmand, a third of the arable land was dedicated to opium poppy in 2017, whereas only 20% was under cultivation in 2016. Less drastically, but still significant increases in density could be observed in Uruzgan and Nangarhar where a fourth of the arable land was under opium poppy cultivation in 2017 compared to 19% in Uruzgan and 16% in Nangarhar in 2016.
Total eradication of opium poppy increased by 395 hectares but remained very low In 2017, 750 hectares of opium poppy were eradicated in 14 provinces (355 hectares in 7 provinces in 2016). During the 2017 eradication campaign, six lives were lost and eight persons were injured. In 2016, eight lives were lost and seven persons were injured.
Potential opium yield and production increased in 2017
Potential opium production was estimated at 9,000 tons in 2017, an increase of 87% from its 2016 level (4,800 tons). The increase in production is mainly a result of an increase in area under opium poppy cultivation, while an increase in opium yield per hectare also contributed.
In 2017, the average opium yield amounted to 27.3 kilograms per hectare, which was 15% higher than in 2016. Yields increased in the Southern region by 19% (from 22.0 kilograms per hectare in 2016 to 26.2 kilograms per hectare in 2017), in the North-eastern region by 14% (from 31.2 to 35.4 kilograms per hectare) and in the Eastern region by 8% (from 32.4 to 34.9 kilograms per hectare). In the Central and Northern regions, yields decreased by 5% and 6% respectively and remained stable in the Western region.
Accounting for 57% of national production, the Southern region continued to produce the vast majority of opium in Afghanistan. With 16% of national production, the Northern region was the second most important opium-producing region in 2017, followed by the Western region (13%) and Eastern region (9%).
In response to the increased supply of opium, 2017 prices at harvest time decreased in all regions (between -7% in the Western region and -50% in the North-eastern region) of Afghanistan except in the Southern region where prices only dropped in the months after the harvest.
At almost US$ 1.4 billion (1.2 – 1.5 billion), equivalent to roughly 7% of Afghanistan’s estimated GDP, the farm-gate value of opium production increased by 55% in 2017 as compared to past year.
Reasons for the increase
There is no single reason for the massive 2017 increase in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. The multiple drivers are complex and geographically diverse, as many elements continue to influence farmers’ decisions regarding opium poppy cultivation. Rule of law-related challenges, such as political instability, lack of government control and security, as well as corruption, have been found to be main drivers of illicit cultivation. also impact farmers’ decisions, for example scarce employment opportunities, lack of quality education and limited access to markets and financial services continue to contribute to the vulnerability of farmers towards opium poppy cultivation.
A combination of events may have exacerbated some of these elements and may have led to the large increase in 2017. The shift in strategy by the Afghan government - focusing its efforts against anti-government elements (AGE) in densely populated areas - may have made the rural population more vulnerable to the influence of AGE. This may have subsequently contributed to the strong increase in the area under opium poppy cultivation. Political instability and increased insecurity particularly affected the Northern region, where opium poppy cultivation expanded drastically in the last couple of years. Generally, the weaker engagement of the international aid community may also have reduced the socio-economic development opportunities in rural areas.
In Hilmand province, additional factors may have played a role. In 2017, reports from the field indicate that more cheap labour for harvesting might have become available. In combination with increasing yields in 2016, this could have motivated many farmers to take up or expand opium poppy cultivation. The opium harvest requires a large number of skilled labourers, who often come from other provinces of Afghanistan and even from neighbouring countries. In past years, there have been reports of a lack of workers, caused by the on-going fights within Hilmand, which may have led farmers to restrict their investments in opium poppy cultivation to avoid the risk of unharvested fields.
The continuing advances in agriculture, including the use of solar panels for powering irrigation pumps and fertilizers and pesticides, may have made opium poppy cultivation increasingly profitable even under unfavourable natural conditions. Solar panels for irrigation seem to have replaced diesel pumps in many areas. These panels require a sizable initial investment, but have lower running costs than diesel-powered pumps and thus can turn desert areas into highly productive arable land at a relatively low cost. The nation-wide high opium farm-gate prices of 2016 might have facilitated some of these investments.
The 2017 record levels of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan create multiple challenges for the country, its neighbours and the many other countries that are transit for or destination of Afghan opiates. The significant levels of opium poppy cultivation and illicit trafficking of opiates will probably further fuel instability, insurgency and increase funding to terrorist groups in Afghanistan. More high quality, low cost heroin will reach consumer markets across the world, with increased consumption and related harms as a likely consequence.
Addressing the opiate problem in Afghanistan remains a shared responsibility. Only a small share of the revenues generated by the cultivation and trafficking of Afghan opiates reaches Afghan drug trafficking groups. Many more billions of dollars are made from trafficking opiates into major consumer markets, mainly in Europe and Asia. Moreover, the transformation of opium into heroin is likely to bring increased trafficking of precursor substances. Tons of precursor chemicals will potentially be diverted from licit international markets and smuggled into Afghanistan to supply manufacturers of heroin.
In Afghanistan, one of the least-developed countries worldwide, the impact of the illicit drug cultivation and production on economic, environmental and social development, continues to be multifaceted. The large increase in opium production will reinforce the negative consequences of the already existing large-scale production of opiates. The expanding illicit economy, which in many provinces has permeated rural societies and made many communities dependent on the income from opium poppy, will further constrain the development of the licit economy and potentially further fuel corruption. The increased levels of opium poppy cultivation also have the potential to exacerbate existing environmental damage caused by overexploitation of the land for opium. The increased availability of opium and heroin in the country might further raise the social and economic costs associated with the consumption of opiates for drug users, their families, and for society in general.
To support the Afghan Government in its efforts to counter illicit crop cultivation, continuing analysis and monitoring of the links between the rule of law, illicit drug cultivation, production, and trafficking is required. The forthcoming MCN/UNODC socio-economic survey report will discuss these factors in detail, presenting an in-depth analysis of the risk factors related to illicit cultivation of opium, as well as the possible consequences and policy considerations for Afghanistan and the international community following this year’s record cultivation.