Taliban launch campaign to eradicate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan

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Afghan Taliban leaders 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 in a time of poverty growing.

Recently, in Washir district in southern Helmand province, armed Taliban fighters stood guard as a tractor tore up a field of poppies. The owner of the field stood nearby, watching.

The Taliban, who took power in Afghanistan more than nine months ago, issued a decree in early April banning poppy cultivation nationwide.

Those who violate the ban “will be arrested and tried in accordance with Sharia laws by the competent courts,” Taliban Deputy Interior Minister for Counter-Narcotics, Mullah Abdullah, told The Associated Press. Haq Akhund, in the provincial capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer and a major source of heroin in Europe and Asia. Production has skyrocketed over the past 20 years despite billions of dollars spent by the United States trying to stop poppy cultivation.

Poppy eradication in Afghanistan
The Taliban eradicate a poppy field in Washir district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 29, 2022.

Abdul Khaliq/AP


But the ban is likely to be a blow to millions of poor farmers and day laborers who depend on the produce of the harvest to survive. The ban comes as Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed, cut off from international funding following the Taliban takeover. Most of the population is struggling to get food and the country is suffering from its worst drought in years.

Noor Mohammed, owner of a poppy field in Washir that was ravaged by Taliban tractors, said his land is small and lacks water so he cannot survive by growing less profitable crops.

“If we are not allowed to grow this crop, we will gain nothing,” he said of his poppies.

Day laborers can earn up to $300 a month harvesting opium from poppies. Villagers often rely on the promise of the next poppy harvest to borrow money to buy basic goods such as flour, sugar, cooking oil and heating oil.

Helmand is the heartland of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. It seems that the new eradication campaign was mainly aimed at those who planted their crops after the announcement of the ban. Many others who had planted earlier succeeded in harvesting, going from plant to plant, cutting the poppy bulb, then collecting the sap which emerges from it, raw material for opium.

Akhund, the deputy interior minister, said the Taliban was in contact with other governments and non-governmental organizations to develop alternative crops for farmers.

It is unclear how many poppies have been planted this season, how many have been harvested and how many fields the Taliban have eradicated so far.

But Afghan production has steadily increased, reaching new heights every year in recent years. In 2021, 177,000 hectares (438,000 acres) were planted with poppies, producing 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, or up to 14 percent of the country’s GDP, exceeding the value of its legal exports, the official said. UNODC in its latest report.

When first in power in the late 1990s, the Taliban also banned poppy cultivation and, with a fierce campaign to destroy cultivated land, nearly eradicated production within two years, according to the United Nations.

However, after the US-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, many farmers returned to poppy cultivation.

Over the next 20 years, Washington spent more than $8 billion trying to eradicate Afghan poppy production. Instead, it has only steadily increased: in 2002, about 75,000 hectares were planted with poppies, producing some 3,400 tons of opium. Last year, production was double.

During the years-long Taliban insurgency, the movement reportedly made millions of dollars by taxing farmers and middlemen to transport their drugs out of Afghanistan. Senior US-backed government officials are also said to have earned millions from the burgeoning drug trade.

Today, Afghanistan’s opium production exceeds that of all other opium-producing countries combined. Nearly 80% of the heroin produced from Afghan opium reaches Europe via Central Asia and Pakistan.

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