Cover: Reducing the Cultivation of Opium Poppies in Southern Afghanistan

Reducing the Cultivation of Opium Poppies in Southern Afghanistan

Published Jun 17, 2015

by Victoria A. Greenfield, Keith Crane, Craig A. Bond, Nathan Chandler, Jill E. Luoto, Olga Oliker

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Research Questions

  1. What are the drivers of opium poppy cultivation in southern Afghanistan?
  2. How might rural development, eradication, and other programs affect farmers' decisions to cultivate opium poppy in light of those drivers?
  3. How might policymakers design and develop sustainable programs to induce farmers in southern Afghanistan to grow less opium poppy?

This report identifies a broad range of factors that drive opium poppy cultivation in southern Afghanistan, the locus of opium production in that country, and assesses the positive and negative effects of programs designed to promote rural development, eradicate opium poppies, or otherwise create incentives for farmers to reduce the cultivation of opium poppies. The authors consider the decision to cultivate opium poppy or other crops from the perspective of farmers who must balance concerns about household income and food sufficiency in the context of socio-economic and environmental factors that, for example, relate to security, eradication, and environmental risks; governance and religiosity; landholding terms and conditions; household circumstances; and agricultural input costs and commodity prices. A factor might encourage or discourage opium poppy cultivation and, in some instances, it could have indeterminate or conflicting effects. Then, the authors examine how rural development, crop eradication, and other programs touch on the factors — and affect poppy cultivation — through mechanisms that include subsidies on fertilizer, high-quality wheat seed, saplings and vines, and farm equipment and facilities; infrastructure investment; training; introduction of non-traditional crops; cash-for-work programs; improved market links; and non-agricultural rural income. On the basis of the assessment, the authors also provide advice on how to design programs that might better serve to reduce the cultivation of opium poppies in southern Afghanistan over the long term.

Key Findings

  • A broad range of socio-economic and other environmental factors, relating to security, eradication, and environmental risks; governance and religiosity; landholding terms and conditions; household circumstances; and agricultural input costs and commodity prices, drive farmers' decisions to cultivate opium poppy or other crops.
  • Socio-economic and environmental factors that drive farmers' cultivation decisions can present indeterminate or conflicting incentives to produce opium poppy or other crops, depending largely on farmers' relative concerns for household income and food sufficiency and risk tolerance. In consequence, many or most programs can have divergent effects.
  • Substantial increases in rural incomes must occur before programs to reduce opium poppy cultivation can result in broad-based, sustained declines, but need not suffice.
  • Near-term, program-led declines in aggregate opium poppy cultivation are highly implausible, but programs can still be directed to foster necessary conditions, especially with regard to incomes, to create better conditions for reducing opium poppy cultivation over the long term.
  • A modest set of projects holds the most promise for opium poppy reductions, in that they might eventually steer farmers toward legal opportunities. Examples include projects that focus on substantially improving the relative returns of high-value, poppy-competing, legal commodities with well-established accessible markets and boosting rural wages.
  • The weight of the evidence suggests that a blanket policy of widespread eradication cannot shift southern Afghanistan's rural economy away from illegal cultivation, but does not rule out the possibility that eradication can play a strategic, targeted role, particularly over the longer-term, with advancement of incomes, good governance, and social change.

Recommendations

  • Programs should focus on traditional agricultural products, such as fruit, nuts, grapes, and other perennial orchard crops, with well-established markets; improve product quality through better sorting, grading, and processing; establish stronger links between farms and markets; employ inexpensive, readily available, maintainable, and simple technologies; and try to reach a large enough number of farmers to stimulate and sustain associated support and marketing industries.
  • Programs should not try to introduce agricultural products new to Afghanistan; rely on complex technologies, especially those that need electricity and other not-yet developed or widely accessible supporting infrastructure; or fail to ensure a local market for the product.
  • Within the broad contours of that framework, programs that focus on substantially improving the relative returns of high-value, poppy-competing, legal commodities with well-established, accessible markets and boosting rural wages are more likely to shift the rural economy in the direction of legality than other programs over time, as incomes rise.
  • The weight of the evidence does not support a blanket policy of widespread eradication efforts in Helmand or Kandahar, but it does not rule out a strategic, targeted role, particularly over the longer-term, with advancement of incomes, good governance, and social change.

This research was requested by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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