Thursday, April 17, 2008

Loosening Opium's Grip on Afghanistan

It sounds like a "win-win" proposition. Rising grain prices, especially for wheat, may be enough to entice Afghan farmers to grow grain instead of opium poppies. In fact, UN experts say a switchover would allow Afghanistan to enjoy a food surplus instead of the serious shortages now faced.

While much of what we see of the countryside suggests Afghanistan is a region of barren foothills and mountains, the country actually has some good farmland of which some 190,000 hectares is used for growing poppies. The output is about 8,200 tonnes of raw opium which has an enormous street value in the west but earns barely enough to keep Afghan farmers out of total poverty.

That same farmland is estimated to be capable of producing 2.6 tonnes of wheat per hectare, slightly more than 500,000 tonnes in annual production and, at today's prices of $500 per tonne, that would be a pretty good income for many Afghan farmers. If that same land was put into higher-value crops such as fruit or vegetables, the returns could be even better.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is calling for more foreign aid to be directed into agricultural programmes. Of the $15-billion in reconstruction aid spent over the past six years, a mere $300-million has gone into agricultural projects.

Of course the UN report fails to address the real problem. There may be a huge difference between what the average Afghan farmer would prefer to do and what that farmer may be allowed to do. A lot of powerful groups including corrupt government officials, the drug barons and even the insurgents rely heavily on the opium production and, while a shift to wheat might make sense to the farmer, it would trigger big losses to those who hold the real power in Afghanistan.

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