Perspectives on Pakistan
Afghan opium farmers follow the money
The rising cost of food that is stirring unrest in the developing world may have one positive spin-off: Afghanistan’s opium farmers, attracted by high wheat prices, may be turning to legal crops.
The Financial Times quotes a recent commander of British forces in Helmand, the heartland of the country’s drugs trade, as saying there is anectodal evidence of such a switch in the southern province. With wheat prices at record highs farmers are calculating they will make money planting the crop, says Brigadier Andrew MacKay.
But he adds, though, that this doesn’t mean that the tide has turned in the fight against the drug industry in Afghanistan, producing 93 percent of the world’s opium which is processed to make heroin and exported around the world.
Afghanistan’s opium crop is forecast to shrink by as much as half this year after 2007′s record harvest, but then this fall is not so much the result of international anti-narcotics efforts but mainly because of an unusally cold and dry winter that has disrupted germination of seeds.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation also cautions against reaching hasty conclusions, arguing that the profits from planting opium poppies are still high, so there might not be a very compelling incentive for farmers to make the change.
Also, looked at in another way, high food prices might actually drive desperate farmers to grow more opium to feed their families. Already Afghanistan, largely reliant on imports of wheat and flour, is reeling under the impact of high global prices and people have taken to the streets to protest.
It is suffering even more because Pakistan, which too is faced with a food problem, has restricted the flow of flour to its neighbour. A full-blown food crisis could be the spark for a national uprising in Afghanistan which has not yet happened despite some of the policies that the West has adopted, says abu muquwama, a blog which focuses on insurgencies and tactics to counter them.