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UN: Taliban Has Curtailed Opium Production by 95 Percent

One year after the Taliban’s ban on opium, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that cultivation and production have declined by 95 percent.

According to a new survey released by the UNODC on Sunday, opium cultivation fell from 233,000 hectares in 2022 to 10,800 hectares in 2023, corresponding to a 95% drop in the supply of opium from 6,200 tons to 333 tons. Until 2023, the UNODC report says, the value of Afghanistan’s opiate exports frequently surpassed the value of its legal exports. Compared to 350-580 tons of heroin produced in 2022, this year’s production was only 24-38 tons.

Drug trading was a leading financing source that fueled the nearly two-decade-long Taliban insurgency against the former Western-backed government that it toppled in August 2021, when Afghanistan produced more than 80% of the world’s opium and made up 95% of the heroine market in Asia and Europe.

Source: UN Office on Drugs and Crime

In April 2022, Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a decree prohibiting the cultivation of all drugs, including opium poppy, across the country. The ban indicated anyone violating it would have their farmlands destroyed and be penalized according to Sharia law.

Experts and observers say the ban led to a sharp increase in opium prices and the trafficking of methamphetamines, whose manufacture primarily focuses on the use of the ephedra plant found in Afghanistan. As of August this year, one kilogram of dried opium cost an average of $408, which is approximately five times higher than the price before August 2021. In a September report, UNODC said that the meth trade in and around Afghanistan was surging with about a 12-fold rise in seizures, adding that a drop in opiate cultivation “could drive a shift towards synthetic drug manufacture, where different actors will benefit.”

As cultivation and production of opium plummeted in 2023, the drug ban, which lacked any development strategy and alternative livelihood measures, left significant implications on vulnerable rural communities, especially in the southwestern region with strong yields. The UN drug agency report said that farmers’ income from selling this year’s opium harvest to traders fell by more than 92% from an estimated $1,360 million from the 2022 harvest to $110 million in 2023.

Opium poppy is very resilient and can easily grow in dry lands, making it attractive for farmers in the south and southeastern Afghanistan, regions severely affected by a multi-year drought.

This sharp downturn highlights a major financial strain for many farmers who relied on opium sales to sustain their livelihood amid a worsening humanitarian and economic crisis. In the provinces of Farah, Helmand, Kandahar, and Nangahar alone, farmers, who would normally sell harvested opium to meet immediate and basic needs such as food, medical expenses, or debt repayment, lost more than $1 billion of cash income from opium sales after the ban as many switched to cultivating wheat with an overall increase of 160,000 hectares in cereal cultivation across these provinces. Altogether, these four provinces accounted for 74% of opium cultivation in 2022.

Source: UN Office on Drugs and Crime

“The strong contraction of the opiate economy in 2023 is likely to affect Afghanistan’s economy at a larger scale,” the UNODC report said. “Opium has often served as an informal credit system, allowing farmers to invest in agricultural activities such as buying seeds and fertilizers. Lower income from opiate exports may lead to a contraction of domestic demand for goods and services and a further contraction of the economy.” Additionally, the UN drug agency warns that a lack of economic opportunities and high opium prices in the market, among other factors, would drive some farmers to return to poppy cultivation next year despite the drug ban.

Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC, said that the decline in opium growth presents a genuine opportunity to build toward long-term results against the illicit opium market and the damage it causes both locally and globally. “At the same time, there are important consequences and risks that need to be addressed for an outcome that is ultimately positive and sustainable, especially for the people of Afghanistan,” Ms. Waly said. ,

International donor funding is, however, diminishing in Afghanistan, which is described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis where over two-thirds of the population requires humanitarian assistance and nearly three million are on the brink of starvation. Of the $4.6 billion proposed humanitarian funding for this year, only 23% has been covered. The UN World Food Program has already cut off 10 million food-insecure from urgent aid. The humanitarian situation is further compounded by recent earthquakes in western Herat, a rise in the number of returning refugees expelled from Pakistan and Iran in addition to millions of internally displaced people.

According to a recent World Bank report, the country’s economy continues to contract and face uncertainty and fragility. Revenue collection at $2.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2022 has fallen since early this year with “most of the receipts coming from border taxes, as inland revenues struggle due to the weak economy and low non-tax receipts.” While exports, primarily of coal, food, and textiles, amounted to $1.9 billion in 2022, the monthly trend has declined since February this year due to a decrease in coal exports.

For two decades, the Taliban relied on the opium trade as the main source of financing for their insurgency against the former government and the international coalition forces. It remains unclear how the decline in opium production affects the group and whether the sharp increase in prices would expand the regime’s revenue collection from opiate trade.