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  • David Mansfield

“Gold Never Gets Old”: Opium stores are critical to understanding the effects of the current Taliban drug ban (i)



“With the banning of opium, the price went up to the sky: my life is better with this order of Shaikh Sahib”

This is not 2001, and we should not expect the same effects


It is misleading to compare the effects of the current drug ban in Afghanistan, or downstream in Europe, with the previous Taliban prohibition in 2001. The context surrounding the impositions of these two bans was different, which in turn, has led to different outcomes. The 2001 Taliban drug ban was announced in July 2000 three months after the previous crop had been harvested, and three months before the 2001 crop went in the ground. In addition, prices at harvest time in the May of 2000, were as low as US$30 per kilogram, giving farmers few chances to retain any crop that year as they had to sell their opium to meet their household expenses. The 2001 ban was also imposed at the end of a decade when poppy had rarely occupied more than 70,000 hectares of land.

In contrast, between 2013 and April 2022, when the current drug ban was announced, poppy cultivation often exceeded 200,000 hectares. The agricultural base of the country had also been transformed by an additional 237,000 hectares of active agriculture in the former desert lands of the south and southwest, where as much as 90,000 hectares of poppy were grown each year. In addition, this latest drug ban was announced just two weeks before the main harvest season began and offered farmers a two-month “grace period” in which to collect their crop.


As such, the timing of Haibatullah’s edict in April 2022, which as in the case of the earlier ban resulted in an immediate sharp increase in opium prices, not only created the conditions for farmers to retain more of their opium crop than they might otherwise have done, but it also allowed them to prepare, were an effective ban to be enforced on the next year’s crop. By driving the price up to more than US$1,000 per kilogramme in December 2023, the ban on poppy cultivation also led to a significant increase in the purchasing power and capital of those that retained opium stocks – inventory – from their crop in 2022, and prior years.


In fact, the issue of inventory is critical when it comes to understanding the current Taliban drug ban and its effects. The reality is that more than two years after Haibatullah’s edict was announced, landed farmers in the south and southwest, core constituents of the current Taliban leadership, still support the continuation of the ban; opium is openly traded in markets across the country even in those areas where there has been no crop since the 2022 harvest; and Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, consistently make large seizures of opiates, even arguing that a drug ban is not in place. Evidence shows that the reason that drugs are still being trafficked cross-border is the substantial inventory of opium that remains in Afghanistan.

Everyone tries to save some of their poppy but not everyone can


It is important to recognise that farmers who grow poppy in Afghanistan will seek to retain as much of their harvested crop as they can each year. After all, opium is a non-perishable crop that can last for years, retains its relatively high value (in contrast to savings in cash in any of the currencies used in the region), and has a readily available market with the added advantage that traders are willing to travel to purchase it at the farmgate. Typically, farmers will stagger their sales, selling only as much opium as absolutely needed at harvest, and storing the rest until later in the season, or even subsequent seasons, in the hope that prices will rise further.


A farmer’s ability to retain inventory is largely determined by a number of factors including:

(i) land tenure, and in particular whether land is owned; (ii) the amount of land dedicated to opium each year and its yield; (iii) the price of opium relative to that of other food and other daily necessities; (iv) the other assets a farmer can draw on, including the amount earned from cultivating other crops as well as non-farm income; and finally (v) the frequency and severity of the shocks they are exposed to.


These factors can mean that many farmers will not be in a position to retain any opium post- harvest. For example, where a farmer has only a small amount of land, perhaps only half a hectare, and opium prices are low, the opportunities for retaining a surplus of opium each year are limited. In those cases where land holdings are particularly small, and poppy maybe mono-cropped, the entire yield will often be sold to meet basic household expenses, including food, healthcare costs, and other necessities.


Where landholdings are a bit larger, up to one hectare, the farmer might cultivate other crops which will go some way toward feeding both family and livestock, but typically they too will need to sell much of their opium that year, unless they have a non-farm income, a trade or employment, that provides some extra cash. Where a farmer takes land on as a sharecropper – typically receiving only one quarter of the final yield of the crops they produce, including poppy – the possibilities for retaining a surplus of opium becomes even more improbable.

However, as Figure 1 shows the likelihood of a farmer retaining a surplus and building an inventory of opium rises considerably where farmers have large landholdings, and during periods of rising opium prices, such as following the ban announced by the Taliban leader in early April 2022, when the net returns on opium poppy rose dramatically.


Graph showing the net returns on poppy cultivation in 2021, 2022 and 2023, differentiating by land ownership and the time of sale

Figure 1: Graph showing net returns on poppy cultivation in 2021, 2022 and 2023, differentiating by land ownership and time of sale

The advantages of landed farmers in the south and southwest


Large landholdings are not common in most of the traditional surface irrigated areas of Afghanistan. In these areas a finite amount of land has been parcelled out and divided up through inheritance over many generations, leaving each household with a smaller area with which to feed itself, and a growing reliance on some form of non-farm income to provide purchasing power to cover their food deficit. This situation is most acute in the more mountainous areas where thin soils, limited irrigation water supplies, high population densities and particularly small landholdings (a quarter to half a hectare on average) make it almost impossible for farmers to grow sufficient food for their families. This is why inventories in the traditional poppy growing areas in Badakhshan, and the southern districts of Nangarhar are small.

However, the same cannot be said in the south and southwest, where landholdings are typically larger even in the surface irrigated areas, largely due to several major irrigation programs completed prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. In these areas, landholdings can often range between one to two hectares.


Landholdings tend to be even larger in former desert lands, which have been settled over the last two decades by farmers, mostly those from the neighbouring surface irrigated areas with insufficient land. With no restraints from either the government or the insurgent Taliban while they were at war, as well as access to improved technology, including solar powered deep wells, an additional 237,000 hectares of land has been brought under agriculture in these former desert areas, with much of it dedicated to poppy (see Figures 2, 3 and 4).

Imagery analysis showing the expansion of agricultural land into former desert areas of south and southwest Afghanistan since 2003

Figure 2: Imagery analysis showing the expansion of agricultural land into former desert areas of south and southwest Afghanistan since 2003


High resolution satellite imagery showing the settlement of desert areas north of the Boghra canal in Nad e Ali, Helmand, 2007, 2019 and 2024

Figure 3: High resolution satellite imagery showing the settlement of desert areas north of the Boghra canal in Nad e Ali, Helmand, 2007, 2019 and 2024

Imagery analysis showing the amount of poppy cultivation in a selected area to the north of the Boghra canal in Nad e Ali, Helmand, 2019-2023

Figure 4: Imagery analysis showing the amount of poppy cultivation in a selected area to the north of the Boghra canal in Nad e Ali, Helmand, 2019-2023


The challenges of calculating inventory


Calculating the amount of opium stored with farmers and traders in Afghanistan is challenging. If asked directly, both farmers and traders are reluctant to mention the amount of opium they have stored, concerned about the risk of theft, or others knowing about their business: the extent to their wealth (or lack of). Similarly, more indirect methods of questioning, that rely on asking farmers about past levels of cultivation, yields, and sales, are also biased by poor recall, as farmers try to remember the different amounts of opium they sold, and at what prices, particularly a long time after a ban has been imposed.

However, high-resolution satellite imagery and livelihood analysis can offer a reasonable solution to these systemic biases, particularly in the former desert areas where there is a certain uniformity in the way that individual farms are laid out (see Figure 5). Each farm in these former desert areas will typically have a walled household compound containing several buildings for the family, guests, and storage, as well as some solar panels for domestic power. There may be another small building where the pump for the deep well is stored, a large reservoir (sometimes up to 800 square metres) to hold water drawn from underground, and 2-4 arrays of large solar panels used to power the pump.


The household’s agricultural land is immediately adjacent to the compound, and due to the lay-out of the fields in relation to the solar powered deep well and the reservoir, there is usually a clear delineation between the land of one farm and that of neighbouring farms, which can be detected using high-resolution imagery and an understanding of the environment. This is not the case in surface irrigated areas, even in the south and southwest, where compounds tend to be concentrated as villages, and household land is often some distance from the compound.


Crucially, these former desert areas are important when considering poppy cultivation and the potential for inventory. More than 50% of the poppy crop in the south and southwest was grown in these former desert areas; around 90,000 hectares in both 2020 and 2022 (see 6). This means that these areas were responsible for around 40% of Afghanistan’s entire poppy crop each year.


Imagery showing typical layout of farms in former desert areas of Helmand

Figure 5: Imagery showing typical layout of farms in former desert areas. This example is from Musa Qala in northern Helmand


Graphic showing poppy cultivation in south and southwest region, differentiating by surface irrigated areas and former desert lands, 2019-2023.

Figure 6: Graphic showing poppy cultivation in south and southwest region, differentiating by former desert areas and surface irrigated lands, 2019-2023


An imagery and livelihoods based method


Calculating the potential inventory in these former desert areas involved several stages. Firstly, we identified five areas of interest (5 kilometre x 5 kilometre) in different parts of the former desert area: two in central Helmand north of the Boghra canal, two in northern Helmand (Musa Qala and Kajaki), and a further one in the district of Maiwand in Kandahar (see Figure 7). Each 25 square kilometre block was reviewed in detail, and polygons drawn around each individual farm: a total of 638 individual farms, with an average farm size of 4.89 hectares of agricultural land (see Figure 8 and 9).

We then combined this with detailed crop mapping across the former desert areas of the south and southwest, to develop a profile of the different crops that a typical farm in these former desert areas cultivated between 2019 and 2023. This showed the extent of poppy cultivation in these former desert areas, where almost two hectares of household land - up to 40% - would often be dedicated to the crop prior to 2023 (see Figure 10).

Map showing locations of 5 (5kmx5km) areas of interest in former desert areas of south and southwest for assessing farm size

Figure 7: Map showing locations of 5 (5kmx5km) areas of interest in former desert areas of south and southwest for assessing farm size


Imagery showing expansion of agricultural land into former desert areas, and respective farm sizes, 2007, 2019 and 2024

Figure 8: Imagery showing expansion of agricultural land into former desert areas, and respective farm sizes, 2007, 2019 and 2024

High resolution satellite imagery showing typical layout of farms in former desert areas of Musa Qala and typical farm size

Figure 9: High resolution satellite imagery showing typical layout of farms in former desert areas of Nad e Ali and typical farm size


Graphic showing typical household cropping patterns in former desert lands of south and southwestern Afghanistan, 2019-2023

Figure 10: Graphic showing typical household cropping patterns in former desert lands of south and southwestern Afghanistan, derived from high resolution imagery analysis, 2019-2023


After developing this household cropping profile for the former desert areas, we then examined income and expenses. Economic data reveals that farmers in the surface-irrigated areas with two hectares of land and growing a combination of wheat in the winter, along with cotton in the spring, and crops like tomato, okra, and groundnut in the summer, can surpass the international poverty line of US$2.15 per person day, assuming a family of ten members.

However, in the former desert areas, more land is needed due to lower yields and more limited crop options. As Table 1 shows, in these areas, with a little more than three hectares of land dedicated to other crops, a farmer can almost meet their household needs, and would be able to retain most of any opium they grow on their other land, were it not for other expenses, including shocks such as sickness or injury, or life cycle events like marriage or death.


Table 1: Net returns on typical cropping patterns in Helmand, differentiating by land size, tenure, and canal or desert areas


These events can be expensive. For example, marriage can cost as much as US$4,000 in the south and southwest. Other important but infrequent costs that a farmer in these former desert areas may incur includes the cost of transport, which might include a new motorcycle for US$400 or car for between US$2,000 to US$4,000, as well as irrigation – the cost of a solar system can range between US$2,900 to US$4,000. These expenses would require more opium to be sold but not every year, as none of these expenses can be considered annual.


Clearly, when opium prices are low more opium needs to be sold to meet these expenses. So, when opium prices were only US$60 at harvest time in May 2021, a new solar powered tubewell, or the marriage of a brother or son, could cost as much as 67 kilogrammes of opium, the equivalent of one hectare of opium poppy yield, thereby reducing the amount of opium that even a farmer with a large amount of land could store (see Box1).


However, when prices rise, as they did after the announcement of the drug ban in April 2022, the terms of trade change, and these expenses can be met with the sale of a much smaller amount of opium (see Figure 11). For instance, in May 2022, when the opium price in the southwest was US$190 per kilogramme, that same solar system would cost the equivalent of 21 kilogrammes of opium, the yield of around one-third of a hectare with yields of 67.5 kilogrammes per hectare; by November 2022, when prices had reached US$360, only 11 kilogrammes of opium would need to be sold, the yield of only 1,629 square metres of poppy (less than one “jerib”); and by December 2023, when prices peaked at US$1,024 in the southwest, that same solar powered system would cost less than 4 kilogrammes of opium, the product of almost 6 “Biswa” (600 square metres) of poppy.


Figure 11: Graphic showing the changing terms of trade on opium, May 2021 to December 2023


BOX 1:

Farmers in southwest Afghanistan, where 80% of poppy is typically grown consistently report yields of between 2.5 and 3.5 man per jerib (the equivalent of 56.25 and 78.75 kilogrammes per hectare), other than in those years where disease has struck. UNODC report yields of 31 kilogrammes per hectare in Afghanistan, only 8 kilogrammes more than Myanmar despite the contrasting growing conditions and farming practices. India would seem to be a far more appropriate comparison when examining opium yields in Afghanistan. In India, farmers cultivate opium poppy legally under similar agronomic and weather conditions as those cultivating much of the crop in Afghanistan. In both countries, poppy is typically grown on well irrigated soil, with generous applications of chemical fertiliser, both nitrates and phosphates, which opium has proven particularly responsive to.

Yields in India are more than twice those UNODC currently report for Afghanistan. In India, farmers grow the opium crop under licence issued by the Government of India. To retain the licence each year, farmers must obtain a Minimum Qualifying Yield (MQY) from their crop which they are compelled to sell to the Government of India for a fixed price per kilogramme. To encourage farmers to improve their yields and sell all their harvest to the government rather than on the illicit market, farmers are then offered a premium price for any opium sold more than the MQY. In 2021, the MQY was the equivalent of 64 kilogrammes per hectare. The amount the government pays farmers then increases for each additional 5 kilogramme increment over the MQY, up until a yield of 90 kilogrammes per hectare, after which the amount paid per kilogramme remained unchanged. As such, yields in India are often more than 70 kilogrammes per hectare.

The crop in Afghanistan is similarly well tended: weeded, thinned, fertilised and well irrigated, and over the last three decades faced only intermittent restrictions from the Afghan government. Moreover, across much of the south and southwest where up to 80% of the crop is grown, the poppy crop is irrigated regularly using solar powered deep wells installed by farmers initially to support agriculture on almost 240,000 hectares of former desert lands, and more recently to offset drought conditions in the surface irrigated areas. Tapping into this ground water has meant that drought has had little impact on the poppy crop in recent years.


The potential for large opium inventories in the former desert areas


With average land holdings of 4.89 hectares in the former desert areas and around three hectares dedicated to other crops, farmers in these areas are largely able to meet their basic household expenses each year, and only need sell a small amount of opium poppy to meet any deficit and more opium in those years where they face a significant expense. Even were we to assume a significant expense each year from a marriage, the need to replace equipment be it solar powered deep well, or the luxury expense of buying a car, this would still only be equivalent to the yield of one hectare of opium prior to the ban when opium prices at harvest time in 2021, 2020 and 2019, were around US$60 per kilogramme. This would still leave farmers in the former desert areas with inventory from the yield of 0.68 hectares of land in 2019 and 0.93 hectares in 2020.


Assuming a level of poppy cultivation in 2021 commensurate with 2020, and yields of 67.5 kilogrammes per hectare, farmers in these former desert lands could have accumulated opium from the equivalent of 2.54 hectares of land, the equivalent of 171 kilogrammes, over the 3 years prior to the imposition of the 2022 ban and the subsequent harvest. With as many as 48,500 households in these former desert areas, inventories could have been as much as 8,315 metric tons of opium even prior to the 2022 harvest.


As noted above, once prices rose following the announcement of the ban in April 2022, farmers in these former desert areas could meet any significant expenses they faced with a much smaller amount of opium (the yield from the equivalent of 1/3 of a hectare) and retained almost all their 2022 harvest, possibly adding a further 5,401 metric tons to the overall inventory from these former desert areas, for a total inventory of 13,717 metric tons. At the household level, this would be an average inventory of the equivalent of 4.19 hectares, or 283 kilogrammes, with yields of 67.5 kilogrammes per hectare. At a price of US$717 per kilogramme in March 2024, this inventory is worth the equivalent of US$203,000, and would go some way to explaining the degree of support for the ban amongst the landed of the south and southwest.


With the likelihood of additional opium stores, including in surface-irrigated areas


It is important to note that this estimate of the potential inventory in the former desert areas does not include opium that farmers may have stored from the poppy they grew prior to 2019. As imagery shows, the encroachment of this desert land began in the first few years of the Afghan Republic and expanded rapidly after 2014 with the development of solar powered deepwells. So, there is a strong likelihood that stores in these former desert areas are higher than the 13,717 metric tons estimated.


Nor does this estimate include inventories in the surface-irrigated areas of the south and southwest, or other parts of Afghanistan. With higher yields, more crop diversity, and better access to urban areas for selling both their agricultural goods and labour, farmers in the surface-irrigated areas of Helmand and Kandahar can earn more income from alternatives to poppy than those in the former desert areas. Spurred on by the dramatic rise in opium prices following the Taliban ban in April 2022, those in the surface irrigated areas would also only have needed to sell a small amount of their opium crop from 2022 to make up any deficit in food and income from their crop sales from other crops and non-farm income. Even were these farmers in the south and southwest to have retained just half of their opium crop from 2022, it would add a further 2,850 metric tons to the inventory, producing a total 16,567 metric tons (enough to make 920 metric tons of heroin).(ii)

There is even some evidence of inventory amongst farmers in the surface-irrigated areas of the Nangarhar and Badakhshan, although much of this must be just from their 2023 poppy crop. Buoyed by the increase in opium prices in 2023, farmers in these areas and others will be increasingly reluctant to sell whatever opium they harvested last year, as well as any inventories they possess, believing that were the ban to continue there will be further price rises to come.


Thus, the potential scale of these inventories and the dramatic rise in opium prices following the ban explains the continued consent that landed farmers give to the drug ban, particularly in south and southwestern Afghanistan. It also offers some explanation as to why the trade in opium continues within Afghanistan, and the significant amounts seized on the country’s borders, including by law enforcement in Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan.


Conclusion


Ultimately, larger landed farmers in the south and southwest continue to welcome the ban, having seen their purchasing power and capital increase dramatically since it was imposed. The figures are startling. For example, for a landowner net returns from one hectare of poppy cultivation were only US$1,461 in May 2021, when the price of opium was US$60 per kilogramme, but would have increased to US$ 8,093 in May 2022, once the Taliban drug ban had been announced.

However, if they retained that crop until December 2023, as many of the large farmers in the south and southwest did, the net returns would have increased to US$50,264. The difference in net returns is even more extreme for those landed farmers that employ sharecroppers on their land and used itinerant harvesters to cultivate their crop, and subsequently bought back their employees’ share of the crop at harvest time when prices are at the lowest. These farmers would have earned only US$ 449 from a hectare of poppy had they sold it in 2021, but US$61,097 in December 2023.

It is the land-poor that are experiencing the most pronounced adverse economic effects of the ban, and have dwindling coping strategies to draw on. Some of these land-poor households are in Helmand as well as other parts of the southwest. They include sharecroppers who cannot earn enough from the land without cultivating a high-value crop like opium poppy, and then retain as little as one fifth of the crop they produce, giving the rest to the landlord. These are farmers whose economic situation typically did not allow them to retain any of their share of the opium crop in 2022, selling it all at harvest – for as little as US$ 3,223 per hectare, not enough to see them through the year despite the inflated prices following the Taliban ban.

These also include those with limited landholdings in the surface-irrigated areas, where the division of land over many generations has resulted in farm sizes that are unviable without poppy. These farmers will have reached, or are approaching, the end of their inventory, and grow increasingly concerned about what the future might hold. The situation will be far more acute, however, in provinces like Nangarhar, where landholdings are rarely greater than one hectare, and where many farmers are in the second year of being unable to cultivate opium poppy.

In these areas, farmers are increasingly pursuing coping strategies that reflect growing signs of stress. Reducing the quality and quantity of food consumed and delaying important health care expenses are ubiquitous practices among this group, and the sale of long-term productive assets is commonplace. Moreover, while outmigration, especially to Europe, had been viewed as a viable alternative to poppy cultivation in these areas, it is increasingly at risk due to the rise in deportations from Turkey and Iran. There appear few places to turn.


As such, the poppy ban is divisive and has the potential to increase political and economic disparities as it continues. Inventories are predominantly held in the south and southwest, offering farmers there, a core constituency of the Taliban, a major economic advantage that has garnered the authorities significant support. The same cannot be said of those in other parts of Afghanistan, where small landholdings and high population densities have limited the amount of opium that farmers have been able to retain. This disparity will not go unnoticed in rural Afghanistan, where those in areas with limited inventory will see the poppy ban as another intervention by the Taliban that denies them economic opportunity.

Targeting the south and southwest for development assistance on the basis that these are the areas where poppy cultivation was concentrated and that have refrained from it, neglects the ground realities of who has been most advantaged by the ban. Such targeting would miss the point: it would not only provide economic support to those that least need it, but could further the impression that it is those in the Taliban’s heartlands that are given preferential treatment.

It is also likely that the tensions between the landed and the land-poor in places like Helmand will become more pronounced if the ban continues. If the ban is prolonged and opium prices remain high, the landed with inventory will have little reason to return to poppy cultivation. They may even seek to dissuade the authorities from allowing a ban to be rescinded, conscious that a reduction in prices would reduce the value of their inventory and diminish their purchasing power.


At the same time, lacking inventory and denied the ability to grow poppy in subsequent years, the land-poor will find themselves in an increasingly desperate economic situation. With insufficient crops from their share of the land with which to feed their families, and fewer non-farm income opportunities to supplement any income they earn from the sale of crops, it is difficult to see how the land-poor of Helmand can survive an enduring ban.

Outmigration has proven one option to Afghan farmers, but many of the poorest in the south and southwest are unable to afford such a route, and the increased number of deportations from Iran and Turkey have increased the risks. A continuing ban that further adversely affects the livelihoods of this population – a group that will only increase in size as the stocks of smaller landowners runs out – may prove destabilising.


 

David Mansfield has been conducting research on illicit economies in Afghanistan and on its borders each year since 1997. David has a PhD in development studies and is the author of “A State Built on Sand: How opium undermined Afghanistan.” He has produced more than eighty research-based products on rural livelihoods and cross-border economies, many for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, and working in close partnership with Alcis. David was also the lead researcher on the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s Counter Narcotics: Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan, covering the period from 2002- 2017.


Footnotes


[i] A Pashto proverb - "Sra-zar na Zardigee" - that refers to the consistent value of gold over time. This is particularly relevant with reference to discussions on inventories of opium, especially given the tendency to equate the value of opium with gold following the dramatic increase in opium prices following the imposition of the ban.  

     

[ii] In 2013, local researchers from the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) reported conversion rates of 10-12:1 for opium to morphine base; 1.2:1 from morphine base to heroin base and 1.5: 1 from morphine base to heroin hydrochloride. This is the equivalent of between 18:1 and 21.6:1 from opium to heroin base (See MCN, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 2013, "Afghanistan Interprovincial Opiate Trafficking Dynamics", November, page 49). In an experiment with Afghan lab workers Zerell et al, 2005 document conversion rates of 9:1 from opium to morphine base, and 2:1 from morphine base to heroin hydrocholoride. Further work drawing on interviews with lab owners and cooks in northern Helmand in 2018, showed similar conversions rates. UNODC, cite Zerell et al 2005 and a conversion rate of 18.5:1 in their discussion of heroin processing in 2018, which forms the backdrop of their current estimates of heroin production (although they then adjust this for a product they refer to as “exportable quality”).

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