Opium and alternative livelihoods

The experience from other countries where narcotic production has been successfully reduced or eradicated shows that when dealing with poor farmers, a combination of force and persuasion is needed. The 'carrot and the stick' approach is where, on the one hand, law enforcement is implemented through eradication, and on the other hand, incentives are provided to encourage farmers to switch to alternative livelihoods. The initial optimism of those promoting and implementing 'alternative livelihoods' in the last two years has become tempered by the hard reality that realistic alternatives are elusive and remain unattractive to rural Afghans.

Alternative livelihood 'carrots'

"Alternative livelihoods" is the 'carrot' corollary to eradication's 'stick'. It is the attempt to attract farmers away from poppy cultivation, provide incentives towards different economic options and create rural environments where desperate farmers no longer need to depend on opium for survival. For many donors and planners it is the panacea that will solve the narcotics crisis in Afghanistan, but as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government agencies involved in alternative livelihood schemes testify, successes are very rare. "We know it's bad to grow poppy but we have to do it," a farmer in northeast Afghanistan told IRIN. "There are no jobs and wheat is worthless. If the government gives us food and jobs then we will stop doing this."

The root cause of the swift spread of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is primarily poverty and opportunism. Rural areas often lack all basic services and functioning infrastructure, while income-generating opportunities are scarce. According to those implementing programmes, alternative livelihood projects can only work as part of a wider multi-sector alternative development package, requiring massive investment and commitment throughout Afghanistan. Anthony Fitz-Herbert, senior advisor on alternative livelihoods to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, told IRIN: "There is no magic bullet, alternative livelihoods is not a rabbit that can be pulled out of a hat. It requires long-term holistic rural development and nothing less".

Experts agree that even if such a programme is viable, it would take decades to achieve, while the rapid spread of poppy cultivation only takes a few planting seasons. The relative difference in time needed between achieving results in poppy proliferation and alternative livelihood projects gives opium a huge advantage. It is difficult to see how the slower benefits of alternative livelihood schemes can compete with the short-term cash returns of poppy, not only from the individual farmer's perspective but also from warlords who may control large-scale poppy cultivation in their areas.

A dream crop

Opium is a dream crop from a farmer's perspective. It is drought-resistant, hardy, and one capsule alone contains hundreds of seeds for future crops. The whole season's harvest fits into a couple of plastic bags, is light in weight and requires no special storage conditions. In most cases the buyer comes to the farmer's farm, releasing him of the need to haul sacks of wheat to an uncertain market, possibly hours away by mule. In an environment where the rains are unreliable, infrastructure is weak and many rural communities are remote, poppy must seem like a gift.

In a village in Badakshan villages beg eradicators to leave their crops
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

The key attraction, however, is the price. As wheat prices tumble in markets overflowing with the crop, nothing compares with the price of opium. A major survey of farmers' intentions conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in late 2003 found that 61 percent of farmers interviewed cited poverty and the high prices of opium as the primary motivation for poppy cultivation.

Opium prices have fluctuated considerably in recent years following the laws of demand and supply. Even with a bumper crop predicted for 2004, and the inevitable fall in opium prices, wheat is an unattractive cash crop alternative for farmers. According to the joint government and donor-financed National Crop Output Assessment released in mid-2003, the average yield of wheat per hectare realised an average of US $222 for farmers. For the equivalent area of land under poppy cultivation the farmer could earn an average of $12,700. On average, the income for farmers from wheat cultivations is approximately two percent of what the farmer can earn producing the illicit but highly lucrative opium. This staggering differential goes a long way to explain the challenges any alternative livelihood efforts may face.

Against the law and Islam

The cultivation of opium poppy is illegal in Afghanistan. Its cultivation, processing and trafficking is outlawed by the new constitution and contravenes international law. Although this may mean little to many Afghans at present, it will increasingly cause them to come into conflict with the authorities as the rule of law begins to take root. The recent UNODC survey indicated that more than 95 percent of farmers knew poppy cultivation was illegal; a fact many had only recently learnt from radio broadcasts.

An Islamic country, Afghanistan is ultra-traditional and devout, yet economic necessity, and to some extent greed, enable people to transcend the Quran's forbidding of narcotic production. For some, the fact that the opium or heroin is destined for non-muslim countries lessens the wrong, although this idea is belied by the reality that 85 percent of Afghanistan's opium is consumed in the region of Central Asia, where addiction rates are soaring. Addiction in Iran alone is now estimated to affect between 800,000 and 1.2 million people, and opiate users are estimated to number 3.5 million - over nine times the global national percentage average. Iranian users source their opium or heroin entirely from Afghanistan.

In Kabul, a US State Department official told IRIN that after investing $36 million in 2003 in a wide range of alternative livelihood initiatives, the US saw little success and this year is investing more in the 'stick' of eradication; only $6 million has been invested in the 'carrot' of alternative livelihoods. It was claimed that even specialised non-governmental organisations were not proposing crop substitution or alternative livelihood projects, finding themselves unable to convince farmers to participate in schemes to lure them away from poppy. Meanwhile, the government is hoping programmes such as the nationwide National Solidarity Programme will help to convince farmers to stop planting poppy.

The labour-intensive nature of poppy cultivation also has a detrimental effect on reconstruction initiatives in a country where daily wage rates have risen between two- and fivefold because of poppy. At certain periods of the year, the workforce is unavailable for anything else. Near Herat city, in western Afghanistan, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported in 2003 large fields of wheat rotting unharvested as farmers neglected their own field in order to work the poppy.

Farmers maximising their options

Opium is simply too lucrative and user-friendly for any other agricultural activity to compete. Ideas of introducing commercial rose plantations, saffron or cotton are simply not viable options as long as a culture of impunity allows poppy cultivators and drug dealers to operate with minimal risk.

Alternative cash crops to opium have little attraction for farmers in rural Afghanistan
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

Farmers in post-war, post-drought Afghanistan have to make rational decisions to maximise their options just to survive. At present, with eradication programmes lacking credibility and law enforcement weak, the rational decision for farmer appears to be to continue growing opium. The findings of the UNODC survey indicated that "two out of three farmers interviewed [69 percent]…stated they intended to increase significantly their opium production in 2004". In respect of the impact of on-going alternative livelihood efforts, the report said "economic aid provided so far has had little or no overall impact on farmers' intentions to grow or not grow opium".

In some cases, farmers have little choice as they farm other peoples' land and do not select the crop planted. During two decades of war, the Taliban regime and years of drought, many farmers sunk into deep debt. After selling off all their assets and watching their livestock die of thirst and hunger, many sold their land, resulting in the rural economy being characterised by a vertical integration of land ownership, where large numbers of land holdings are held by a relatively small group of people.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers, of Afghanistan's approximately 26 million population, are now landless and work as sharecroppers or tenants on the land they previously owned, or as itinerate labourers. The wealthier landowners will make their own decisions as to what they plant, and clearly their most attractive option, albeit illegal, is still poppy.

Experts appear to agree that efforts to establish realistic, alternative non-poppy livelihood projects need to address the needs of small farmers to maximise their subsistence possibilities while minimising their debt levels to local merchants and money lenders. But they also need to address the profit-maximising desires of the middle and large landowner, who may be harder to persuade.

A senior representative of the Aga Khan Foundation in Kabul, with community projects in opium-producing areas, said the emphasis on alternative livelihoods in the last two years was misplaced. "It was a missed opportunity," he told IRIN. "They should have implemented serious interdiction for one or two years to develop a stronger perception of risk before introducing alternative livelihoods." As long as the rule of law is not in place, and enforcement of the opium ban is not implemented, those promoting alternative livelihoods are betting in a game where the odds are, at present, wildly high against them being successful.