Afghanistan: Press conference by head of UNODC and UNAMA Spokesperson's Office

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UNAMA: Salaam alaikum. Good morning everyone and a warm welcome to UNAMA's press conference today. I am Nilab Mobarez from UNAMA Spokesperson's Office. Our guest speaker today is Ms Christina Oguz from the United Nation's Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC). Before I handover to our honourable guest, let me give you an update from Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA).


Promoting education for women in Badghis, Radio Television Afghanistan supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) last week inaugurated an upgraded radio station and a media centre in Qal-i-Naw in the western province of Badghis. IOM also completed a literacy and basic health campaign through classroom-based courses and road shows. The campaign reached over 1,600 women in 40 villages. During these events, women in rural areas were also given radio sets. If you would like more information, please see IOM's press release on the side table.

UNODC: As you know there was a reduction of poppy cultivation this year by almost 20 percent from 193,000 hectares to 157,000 and poppy cultivation is no longer an Afghanistan problem, it is actually a problem of the south and the south-west of the country.

98 percent of the cultivation took place in only seven provinces - Helmand, Farah, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Nimroz and to a lesser extent Zabul and Dai Kundi.

And the rest of the country is either free from poppy cultivation or it has reduced significantly; there are 18 provinces where there is no poppy grown at all.

This is quite an accomplishment. How did this happen?

It happened because the Government had a very clear message - from President Karzai, to his Ministers, to Provincial Governors, to the Mullahs and community leaders.

The message was clear: We will not tolerate poppy cultivation. And the farmers listened everywhere, except in the south.

They listened when the Government said that poppy cultivation is against Islam, they listened when they said it brings disharmony, violence and drug abuse to the local community.

So when 90 percent of the farmers in Afghanistan listened they showed that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behaviour and their attitudes or beliefs with the right kind of support.

So we at UNODC have looked into what support and impetus for change works and we have studied last season's pre-planting public information campaign. The summary of this report is on the side table and the full report is available online.

The results clearly indicate that there is a simple way of packaging information that, under the right circumstances, can send a clear message and compels a community into action. The content of the message is of importance and also the context. And of course who delivers that message is also important.

Let me give you a few examples.

In Afghanistan it is generally recognised that poppy cultivation is against Islam, but religious messages can be more or less powerful.

Our study showed that in Herat and Nangarhar references to Islam and the Holy Koran were quite powerful and people listened very carefully to the preaching of the Mullahs.

In Badakhshan on the other hand, people were not always convinced that poppy cultivation is Haraam. But they did see a link between opium and violence in the form of local criminality. The argument of disharmony and criminality in the community was very powerful there and it was also very powerful in Balkh.

But interestingly nowhere did the farmers make a connection between terrorism on the one hand and poppy cultivation on the other hand.

What this tells us is that the content must be right for the message to have any influence on the audience and the relevance of the content varies from province to province and from place to place.

We should never underestimate the importance of the situation itself and the context. We found for example that posters are rarely seen in rural areas; they are more or less confined to the main towns. TV is also largely confined to the main towns. Radio coverage is not universal, although it is better than TV. Billboards are usually not effective since people cannot read the messages.

This leaves us with history's most powerful medium of communication: word of mouth. We believe that influential public figures and Mullahs should be encouraged much more to spread these messages.

In order to be capable of causing change, ideas have to be memorable and stick in the brain of the receiver and move us into action; not only the content but also the presentation and how it's structured is very important as well.

In Nangarhar people liked most of the posters, especially those with Islamic motives and a moral lesson. There is one poster for example which shows a choice between enlightenment (the pen) and destruction (opium poppy) and that was a very popular one.

In Badakhshan they didn't like any of them saying they all looked foreign and were against Islam.

Even if people have listened to the Government this year - it doesn't mean they will continue to listen.

Why is that so? Because public information must always be linked to action. And here is where we have a dangerous weakness and we can take Nangarhar as an illustration. During the last few years in Nangarhar, poppy cultivation has gone up and down; down when aid promises have been made and up when the promises have not been kept. Last year Nangarhar cultivated around 18 to 19,000 hectares and this year it is zero. It's an amazing reduction but there is always the danger of a backlash.

Poppy reduction always comes with a price and the price is higher for the poorest people in the community. In many parts of the country farmers do not produce enough food for their own needs. There are also people who don't have any land and who have insufficient opportunities to earn enough to feed their families. In parts of Badakhshan, seven out of 10 households face serious difficulties to satisfy their basic food needs.

For many people, opium, either by cultivating or working the fields was the main source of cash income and many households used to rely more on opium sales than wheat production to satisfy their own grain needs.

The situation in Balkh is similar. Very few households are food secure, despite the fact that they produce crops and livestock for consumption. Because they are not self sufficient; they need cash to buy food and in some places half of the population has that cash, in others almost all do not produce enough wheat for their own needs.

Lack of food and lack of cash are real problems for very large parts of the population in provinces like Balkh, Badakhshan and Nangarhar, where very substantial reductions in poppy cultivation have taken place.

How do they respond? They sell their productive livestock if they have any. They take loans - not to invest in productive activities, but to buy food. They eat less, and they eat food with low nutritional value. This makes them more prone to illness, and when they become sick, they have no access to public health services and they have to borrow money to go to private clinics or doctors. This is a vicious cycle of poverty.

These people have responded to the development aid promises from the Government and from the international community and in many cases these promises are not kept. In some areas, such as Badakhshan there is a mounting anger at the lack of action and this is very dangerous because the north east is already less stable than it used to be.

However, if we look at the alternative livelihoods database that the Ministry of Counter Narcotics is running (set up with assistance from UNODC), we find that more alternative livelihoods assistance has gone to northern parts of the country - per hectare of opium poppy cultivation - than to the south. But people don't see it. They don't feel it.

So I think there are a couple of lessons to be learnt: aid must be provided in consultation with the local community and there must be a constant dialogue. Aid must also meet immediate food needs - WFP food for work is well received for example, and it must also meet mid-term and long- term needs such as employment which gives cash, development and reconstruction to the community.

Let me take road construction as an example. It may be quicker to hire a foreign company to build the roads, but then much of the investment goes back in the form of salaries to foreigners rather than to local Afghans. Therefore we must invest in labour intensive work so that the investment stays with the local community. In the short-run for example cash paid can be paid for work.

So why do I give roads as an example instead of talking about alternative crops? Everybody asks what can they produce instead of opium? But I would like to say why a road would be a very important investment.

Opium is a very easy product because the farmer doesn't have to go anywhere, the traders come to their doorstep and they buy the opium directly from them and it is not sensitive if you have to transport it on bumpy roads, you can put it on your back and walk over the mountains - it is easy.

Tomatoes or even potatoes are more sensitive to transportation than opium and can very easily be destroyed if they have to be transported on bumpy roads. If there is a road, the family can more easily visit the bazaar and find out what are the products that are in demand, what are the prices? Maybe they are selling their produce for a much lower price because they don't know anything about the prices in the rest of the province.

They can get in contact with the local agricultural office to learn about new techniques to improve their production for example. They can get seeds, fertiliser and chemicals for the vegetables; they can make direct marketing arrangements with the traders. There are many things they can do if they have a road which they can't do now.

These are just a few examples. But the message is that 90 percent of farmers have responded to the pleas of the Government not to cultivate opium and some of them are paying a high price for this. Both the Government and the international community are playing with fire if they don't honour the promises to the farmers who have stopped cultivating opium.

As we speak now the farmers are actually making their decisions on whether or not to prepare their land for planting poppy for the next season. So this is exactly the time when something has to happen on the part of both the international community and the Government.


VOA: In the past few days both the UN and the US Government have released numbers regarding the percentage of poppy reduction in the country. Why is there a difference in the numbers and how confident are you that your numbers are accurate?

UNODC: In terms of the cultivated areas we are more or less the same. We are also the same in terms of the number of poppy-free provinces. The numbers regarding opium production have been reported in the press, but I have not seen the report itself so I cannot say anything about the methodology.

I am quite confident about the way we do it. We are physically measuring more than 17,000 capsules and based on that we calculate the yield. As you know this year 98 percent of the production took place in the fertile south so that is why, according to our calculations, the yield is quite high.

Last year we had a weighted average because we looked at other provinces where there is almost no cultivation now. Having said that I would also say that whichever figures turns out to be right - it would be a tragedy because it is far too much.

IRNA [translated from Farsi]: You said that if the Government and the international community's assistance continues opium production goes down and if it stops the production increases. Taking into consideration the assistance from the international community over the past several years, poppy cultivation has always increased except this year. To what extent are you hopeful about an increase in international aid that will decrease poppy cultivation?

UNODC: In order to reduce cultivation you need to do more than to provide assistance for alternatives. I am talking about two things: massive reconstruction and development aid to those parts of the country where they produce only two percent of the poppy crop. In this case we are looking at sustaining the reduction and making sure that farmers don't go back to poppy cultivation.

The situation in the south is different. There we need much more focus on interdiction efforts to make sure that laboratories are destroyed, that convoys transporting drugs out of Afghanistan and chemicals into Afghanistan for manufacturing of heroin are intercepted. This way we can stop this link between farmers and the markets. We believe this has to be done in the south. So we need a two-pronged strategy in the country.

SHAMSHAD TV [translated from Pashto]: The 20 percent reduction that you have mentioned while at the same time the number of people addicted is increasing. On the other hand some Afghan experts are saying that 80 percent of those involved in the drug trade are foreigners. What is your opinion on this issue?

UNODC: Drug abuse is definitely a very serious problem for the country and it is probably increasing. We do not know for sure but everything points in that direction. But we are about to start a new drug use survey trying to estimate the number of drug abusers in the country. It will be sometime next year when we will know for sure. But definitely this problem needs much more attention.

On the other part of your question I have not heard any figure on that, but according to our information, the trade in opium, in precursor chemicals and in morphine and heroin is very well organised in the country. It is run by organised criminal networks who according to our information are mainly Afghans. They are well connected within the country to the people with power. They are also very well connected to international criminal networks. So it has a connection in both directions. As far as we know inside the country at least, the networks are run by Afghans. But as I said, it is a business. They do not care where you come from, as long as you do what you are supposed to do.

RFE/RL: Could you give us an example of who is involved in the trade of poppy in Afghanistan?

UNODC: We do not collect names.

GOOD MORNING AFGHANISTAN [translated from Dari]: According to UNODC, public awareness has been one of the effective factors of poppy reduction in Afghanistan whereas the Government of Afghanistan claims the reduction is due to eradication in 18 provinces. And we all know that these two factors are short-term ones, if you can not bring a change in the lives of farmers, you can not guarantee the sustainability of such reduction. I would like to know your views.

UNODC: I have not heard the Government say that this is due to eradication. We produce a joint report, where this year not more than around 5,000 hectares were destroyed which makes it about three percent. Actually, the 18 provinces that are now poppy free, the number was 13 last year and the year before were only six provinces did not grow poppy. They have not become poppy free because of eradication but because farmers decided not to cultivate - not because of eradication. The relative importance of eradication is going down. It has to be there as a tool in your toolbox, only one tool and it is not as important because the other part of public information support for development for food is far more important in terms of bringing the farmers away from poppy cultivation.

SABAH TV [translated from Dari]: In the past UNODC has asked the Government of Afghanistan many times to disclose the list of smugglers, yet the Government did not come up with any list. The convoys for drugs are moving around freely. What is the reason for this and what is the United Nations view on it?

UNODC: I would like you to ask that question to the Government.

AFP: An Afghan, which is alleged to be a major drug trafficker, was indicted in New York last week. Do have any information on how big his organisation is and whether his arrest would have any impact on the drug cultivation in the south of Afghanistan?

UNODC: I don't have more information than has been in the press. It is very good news but there are more people out there that need be brought to justice. We also need to realise that if we have the head of an organisation taken away, that does not mean the organisation would not continue to work. Look at the big banks and companies, the CEO may go away but the company still continues.

FARDA TV: The Afghan Government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have always said that the Taliban are being supported by the cultivation of poppy and that places that are under the control of foreign forces and the Government of Afghanistan will become poppy free. What is your plan for places under the Taliban to stop poppy cultivation in those areas?

UNODC: You are familiar with the situation. I will say on this that there is as a kind of alliance of convenience between big land owners, big drug traders, the organised crime networks I was talking about, corrupt officials and insurgents. We believe that in order for this to be solved they have to be fought together. We believe that you can't first do drugs and then insurgents or the other way around, it has to be dealt together. But how it is being done? It is not for us to say. This has to be decided by the Government [of Afghanistan] and the international forces in the country.

TOLO TV [translated from Dari]: You said there has been almost a 20 percent reduction in the cultivation of poppy. What is the reference for this figure and how did you carry out your survey? The second part of my question is that last year Afghanistan was the largest producer of opium in the world, what is the rating for Afghanistan this year?

UNODC: Let's give you a very short answer to the second question: I am afraid it [Afghanistan] is still number one by a huge margin. In terms of how we calculated the figure, we have people on the ground who measure the fields, we have satellite images and we triangulate the data. We make sure that it is a very solid basis for calculating the cultivation.

PAJHWOK [translated from Dari]: I just want to have a brief explanation on whether there is a reduction in hashish cultivation also or only in poppy cultivation, because Afghanistan was the first in the world in the production of hashish last year?

UNODC: We don't make very accurate estimations of hashish at present. But it seems that there may be a little bit of a reduction, but not so much, because of some Governors. I know the Governor of Balkh has eradicated, but the drought has influenced the production of cannabis this year. We hope that we will be able to develop the methodology to also estimate the areas of cannabis cultivation because this country is very quickly climbing up on that one as well. Thank you all.