In a remote compound in southern Afghanistan, Bibi Hazrato, a distressed 60 year old, watches as a group of men destroy her poppy crop, adhering to a Taliban government order to eradicate the narcotic plant from the country.
Hazrato confronts the men, but one of them simply says…
“God says crush this.”
The profitable trade of poppy tar, which is the psychoactive substance in heroin, has been a consistent aspect of Afghanistan’s economy throughout years of conflict and turmoil. However, in April of last year, Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada proclaimed that poppy cultivation was “strictly prohibited.”
As the first harvest season under the ban begins, fields of wheat are cropping up where poppy flowers used to thrive. In Hazrato’s humble home in Sher Surkh village, Kandahar province, the dilemma of balancing an illegal yet economically vital source of income while facing a humanitarian crisis is evident.
The Taliban initially succeeded in eradicating poppy agriculture during their first rule from 1996 to 2001, but their ban lost effectiveness after the US-led invasion in 2001, and they began to fund their insurgency through a tax on the crop, reported Bangkok Post.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium production accounted for approximately 50% of the Taliban insurgents’ revenues in 2016. By 2020, 85% of the world’s opium originated from Afghanistan. In 2021, the opiate economy made up between 9 and 14% of Afghanistan’s GDP.
The prohibition was announced during last year’s harvest season, so a grace period was allowed, as immediate enforcement of the ban risked causing widespread dissent. This year, however, UNODC senior official Anubha Sood stated that the poppy ban has been strictly implemented, though she acknowledged that “small fields” were still present in non-visible and remote areas.
Due to the ban, prices per kilogram have nearly doubled, reaching about US$200 last year.
In a village near Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, Ghulam Rasool, 60 years old, attempted to bypass the ban and continue farming poppies. Last year, he made a small fortune in Afghanistan, earning 1.5 million Afghani (US$17,000) by cultivating five hectares of poppy. This year, he reduced his crop to a small patch within his private compound, but just days before the harvest, three men arrived to enforce the Supreme Leader’s ruling.
Rasool expressed his frustration, stating that alternatives should be provided, but the government has not offered any assistance thus far.
Abdul Haq Akhund Hamkar, Deputy Counter-Narcotics Minister, reported that nearly three thousand hectares of poppy have been destroyed since the start of the season. Despite this being only a fraction of the 233,000 hectares estimated by the UNODC to have been harvested in 2022, Helmand Counter-Narcotics Chief Haji Qazi stated that the ban has been largely effective, as less poppy was planted this season.
The Taliban’s reputation for strictly enforcing law and order means that many people have complied with the directive, resulting in decreased poppy cultivation. Mir Ahmad, a 37 year old farmer from Helmand province, admitted that converting his nine hectares of poppies into wheat has left him financially struggling compared to last year, but he had no choice but to adhere to the ban.
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