Banning ephedra and bolstering the rural economy of Afghanistan
The economic crisis is wreaking havoc on the Afghan population. Since the Taliban takeover, the Afghani has depreciated by a third, the price of basic food items has more than doubled and large numbers of public sector employees have found themselves without pay.
However, there is a part of the economy that is prospering, bolstered by the Taliban’s intervention. In the 1st week of December 2021, the Taliban banned the harvesting of ephedra in the provinces of Ghor, Farah, Nimroz and Bamian.
They made little to no announcement of the decision in the local press. In contrast to past performances on the stage of drugs diplomacy, there was no statement to the international media, so there were few that noted this new policy
Nevertheless, the impact of this ban has been significant. Ephedra, known locally as oman or bandak, is a shrub that grows wild in the central highlands of Afghanistan and since 2016, has become a key ingredient of the country’s rapidly expanding methamphetamine industry. A perennial, the ephedra crop is harvested between July and November, so the Taliban prohibition coincided nicely with the end of the harvest season, thereby having little effect on those who make the journey deep into the mountains to cut and collect the crop.
Prior to the ban, the price had slumped to its lowest in four years. When we began research on ephedra in Ghazni in 2018, ephedra cost up to $1.80/kg. By November 2021, the price was as low as $0.63/kg largely due to the growing number of people scaling the rocks to collect the crop. Despite the low price in 2021, there was no shortage of people willing to make the difficult journey. In Ghor, former ANDSF were found harvesting the crop in the mountains in November 2021, driven there by the unfolding economic crisis.
The harvest was such that in late November, Abdul Wadood Bazaar - the focal point for the meth industry in SW Afghanistan - was awash with dried and milled ephedra and the ephedrine labs were increasingly active. With many traders at Abdul Wadood purchasing and storing ephedra from areas as far flung as Badghis, Ghor, Helmand and Ghazni, there were more than 250 mounds at Abdul Wadood, most over 1.6 metres in height.
Using high resolution satellite imagery collected in November last year, it is estimated that the total volume of the ephedra at the bazaar was 11,886 cubic metres; enough ephedra to fill four Olympic swimming pools, with some left over.
Converted into meth, this is the equivalent of 220 metric tonnes, making Abdul Wadood the largest drugs bazaar in the world.
A walk through the north ephedra trading area
A walk through the south ephedra trading area
With such vast quantities of ephedra available, it was no surprise that the price would fall, along with those for its derivatives, ephedrine and meth. In fact, by early November the price of ephedrine was as low as $51/kg and meth was $200/kg. With the cost of imported inputs doubling due to the depreciation of the Afghani, profits were lower than they’d been since the days of using over the counter medicines as a source of pseudoephedrine.
Then came the ban on ephedra. Announced by the Ministry of Agriculture in early December, it created an uncertainty over the future of the meth industry. Yet far from resisting the ban, producers and traders in Abdul Wadood and neighbouring Khashrud welcomed its effects.
Within days the price of meth had bounced back to 2020 levels of $320/kg and by early January 2022, prices were as high as $570/kg. The cottage industry of ephedrine production was also bolstered with prices rising more than fourfold and were up to $230/kg by January. This was a welcome addition to the economies of households in Bakwa & Khashrud who had set up basic ephedrine labs and had seen profits fall from $30/kg in 2020 to less than $10/kg prior to the ban and are now almost $100 per kilo.
Prior to this flourish of activity, meth production in SW Afghanistan stood at an estimated 1,000 metric tonnes per year. The 448 ephedrine labs previously identified over this area from high resolution satellite imagery in prior research, along with the meth labs for processing would have created full time employment for 1,500 people. Hundreds of thousands of labour days were also required to trade, load, unload and mill ephedra as it moved from the mountains to the bazaar in Abdul Wadood, providing much needed wage labour days for the area. In the mountains, a further 1 million labour days of work per year would have been needed to harvest the ephedra required for these labs, creating an income of $22 million per year, to an area with few off-farm income opportunities.
As such, at the beginning of 2022 it is hard to see who has lost from the Taliban ban on ephedra. Even those in the mountains who should have been most affected (were the harvest not already through) saw an almost doubling of the price of the ephedra they had collected & dried. And while the traders transporting ephedra from Ghor to Bakwa are now taxed by the Taliban at $5,700 per truck - a considerable increase on the $1,000 paid when the Taliban were mere insurgents – they are still seeing increased profits due to the dramatic rise in the price of ephedra.
The tax hikes on both the ephedra trade and on those smuggling meth across the borders (from $ 3.75/kg to $7.15/kg) is also a boon to the Taliban, generating $26 million per year for their coffers, a significant increase on the possible $10 million they earned prior to the tax rise. As such the ban on ephedra marks a significant moment for the Taliban government. So far their decision to ban ephedra has only brought benefits; for cynics it could be viewed as simple market manipulation.
The real test will be in July 2022 when the ephedra harvest starts again. While only time will tell if the Taliban will be willing or able to implement a ban and curtail their own income and those along the value chain, it is hard to ignore the fact that once converted to meth, the dried ephedra present in Abdul Wadood Bazaar on 26th November would now be worth $125.4 million, three times its value prior to the ban.
The economic and political ramifications of turning off this spigot may just be too high a cost to bear, especially after what is proving to be a particularly difficult winter for the Afghan population. Meanwhile, the result of this boom in ephedra and uptick in meth production will be wending its way to a variety of countries within the region, but also further afield, including to east and south Africa, Australia and along the Balkan route to Turkey and possibly beyond.