Afghanistan's decades-long history of occupation, conflict and poverty is deeply intertwined with its role as a major global opium and heroin producer. According to the new Afghanistan Opium Survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2023 marks a steep departure from this narrative, as cropland used for opium poppy growing was down 95 percent since last year. The Taliban, who seized power in the country in 2021, have been conducting a campaign against the cultivation of the plant since this year - which observers have called sophisticated. However, the sudden end of poppy growing that provided a livelihood for many in Afghanistan has put a large number of people at risk of even more drastic poverty.
The UN states that Afghan farmers seeking alternatives opted for more wheat or other cereal cultivation, leading to families expected to earn only a fraction of their previous incomes this year. According to the organization, a longer transition period could have allowed farmers with small plots to transition to higher value but slower growing crops like pomegranate or pistachios instead. Yet, the UN believes that the ban could be an opportunity to increase food security and even diversify the economy of Afghanistan, while doubts remain whether farmer will resist the ban in coming years as the effects of lost income become apparent.
The potential opium yield has fallen from 6,200 metric tons in 2022 to just 333 tons this year on just 10,800 hectares of cropland. This would convert to just 24-38 tonnes of export quality heroin, compared to the 350-580 tonnes estimated for 2022. Most poppy used to be grown in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, which incidentally are also traditional Taliban strongholds. Also, the secluded eastern province Nangarhar and the western Badghis province bordering Turkmenistan used to be among the top producers. In 2000 and 2001, the Taliban had once before successfully cut down poppy cultivation but the ban wasn't upheld during the U.S. invasion that ultimately led to the group losing its grip on power then.