Afghanistan’s poppy crop threatened by a tiny foe

A mysterious blight is devouring Afghanistan’s southern poppy crop, with the United Nations predicting that the 2010 opium yield may be down by as much as one-third. At first glance, this might seem like good news. An enormous drop in the opium yield means drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban, who tax and protect ...

MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images

A mysterious blight is devouring Afghanistan's southern poppy crop, with the United Nations predicting that the 2010 opium yield may be down by as much as one-third.

At first glance, this might seem like good news. An enormous drop in the opium yield means drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban, who tax and protect the poppy trade, make less money … right?

Wrong. When supply goes down, prices go up. Farm-gate values for raw opium, which had been dropping after years of overproduction, have shot up more than 60 percent, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which tracks yield and values across Afghanistan.

A mysterious blight is devouring Afghanistan’s southern poppy crop, with the United Nations predicting that the 2010 opium yield may be down by as much as one-third.

At first glance, this might seem like good news. An enormous drop in the opium yield means drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban, who tax and protect the poppy trade, make less money … right?

Wrong. When supply goes down, prices go up. Farm-gate values for raw opium, which had been dropping after years of overproduction, have shot up more than 60 percent, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which tracks yield and values across Afghanistan.

And that’s good news for everyone holding large stockpiles of opium or processed narcotics — the Taliban, drug traffickers, and other power brokers who smuggle narcotics. The UNODC has estimated that more than 11,000 metric tons are stockpiled around Afghanistan and the region. If opium yields are down this year, those stockpiles will gain in value.

Another problem is that poppy farmers are convinced that NATO is behind the blight, which seems to be linked to an infestation of aphids. It’s not enough that the fruit-eating bugs are munching through regular crops, too, or that USAID is trying to help farmers save their orchards. In conspiracy-theory-prone Afghanistan, many suspect a Western plot.

NATO troops in the south are trying to build rapport in local communities as part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s population-centric strategy. This bug infestation could breed mistrust instead.

Perhaps worst of all, such a sharp decline in farm output has the potential to cause widespread economic despair in Afghan farm communities, where most people already scrape by at very slim margins. Poppy farmers who depend on loans from opium traffickers may find themselves buried in debt.

History and experience indicates that shifting poor farm communities off narcotics takes time. A report out this month from an Afghan research center has already questioned the sustainability of current levels of reduction.

That said, there may be an opportunity here — but only if the international community positions itself swiftly to help Afghan farmers. Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC’s executive director, is in New York this week, hoping to get U.N. members states to pledge emergency funds to subsidize poor farm families through the coming winter, as long as they pledge not to plant opium next season.

"My strong wish is for the international community to support the farmers who give a pledge to not grow opium," he told me.

That won’t be at all simple to administer or regulate, as Costa himself admits, and there could be opportunities for deception and corruption, particularly in remote areas.

But not helping the farmers is an even less palatable option because financial desperation could drive them into the arms of the traffickers and the Taliban.

Right now many Afghan farmers suspect the international community has secretly caused this blight. The challenge for NATO and the West is to shift perceptions so that Afghan farmers see them as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Gretchen Peters is the author of Seeds of Terror, How Drugs, Thugs and Crime are Reshaping the Afghan War.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to better reflect the nuances of the mysterious blight.

Gretchen Peters is a former ABC News reporter for Pakistan and Afghanistan. She authored the forthcoming book, Seeds of Terror (New York: St. Martin's Press), which probes links between the opium trade and insurgency.

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