January 19, 2007

About opium

Look, I don't want to be the downer on this, but legalizing Afghan opium, as recommended here, is not as useful a policy approach as it sounds.

"Just like Afghanistan, Turkey had a long tradition of poppy cultivation. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey worried that poppy eradication could bring down the government."

Um, okay, look, the 1971 yield of opium resin for Turkey was 58 tonnes, which would normally yield you 6 tonnes of heroin. In 1971, when the U.S. backed eradication effort started this was enough to be 7 per cent of the world's supply. The eradication was largely achieved, Applebaum is correct in saying, by reserving 80% of the legal U.S. market for opiates for Turkish farmers to fill.

The 2006 Afghan yield for opium resin was 6100 tonnes of opium, the equivalent of 610 tonnes of heroin. This is at a time when it's believed the total annual world consumption of heroin is only 450 tonnes (the rest is consumed as other opium products). That's two orders of magnitude higher than the Turkish problem.

Currently, Turkey meets all its legal opiate exports from about 5,000 hectares of farmland. This isn't poppy, by the way, but poppy straw, which can be harvested mechanically, unlike traditional opium, which requires manual harvesting. India, the only country legally allowed to produce opium poppy, can meet all the world's demand for that method with less than 9,000 hectares under cultivation.

Last year, 165,000 hectares of Afghan land were sown with opium.

The Indian government also forbids any farmer to seed more than 0.1 hectares with opium poppy to prevent diversion, in a country where the illegal price is about five times the government-controlled legal price. Average yield per farmer in 2005 was 5.6 kg, which was sold to the government at an average price of $26/kg. About 90,000 farmers are licensed to plant opium in this way, and much more land would be available for cultivation if demand rose and the government allowed it.

(In Afghanistan, there are over 300,000 opium farmers, receiving a market price of $100/kg, a comparable price to what Indian farmers receive on their own black market.)

There is no way that any increased legal market for this substance can possibly make a dent in these kinds of numbers. Trying to draw lessons from the Turkey situation given that kind of differential seems pretty absurd.

The answers to opium overcultivation in Afghanistan, assuming they exist, are probably going to be the same as they've been elsewhere in the world where this sort of thing has been successful... increasing the rural standard of living to expand farmers' options as much as possible, and target and shut down the opiate processing facilities where those are found as much as reasonably possible. (Attacking the crops, whether through chemical destruction or other means, is almost certainly cost-ineffective and more likely to alienate the local population than anything else.) Hardly a short-term or high payoff approach, this, of course, needs to be largely a matter for local authorities, as the Bonn and London councils that have been coordinating international aid for Afghanistan rightly recognized. But the U.S. focus on crop eradication as part of its own counter-terror strategy in southern Afghanistan up until now seems... somewhat misplaced.

By the way, you know where most Afghan opium goes, don't you? Local labs convert it into more easily transportable morphine base. Then it's shipped to heroin labs in... you guessed it...Turkey.

UPDATE: What I'm really trying to say above is that we need to view opium growing as an indicator of a larger problem, not a problem itself. Actual poppy farming is highly labour-intensive, similar in some ways to 19th century cotton growing. It is an industry that thrives in times of high labour surplus. Many of the rural inhabitants in Afghanistan engaged in this right now literally have nothing better to do. With poppy, what makes economic sense when your entire family is at home will be much more difficult when your eldest son is at the new canning plant in the city, his brother just joined the auxiliary police, and their sister is in school learning to write Dari. Inevitably other pressures on the labour market will drop yields per hectare and take marginal land out of production.

Combine that with the risk involved in any criminal enterprise (government action aside, the risk of the next warlord over driving up their profits at the expense of your warlords by depressing the yields of his farmers is always present) and this is something that farmers can be weaned off of if better opportunities present themselves. There were plenty of stories this year of farmers being blackmailed or extorted into farming poppy. If it was so generally lucrative at the farmer's end, this wouldn't have been the case.

Western nations can still help with targeted actions against the exporters and local criminals. Stronger local police and paramilitary forces can discourage the "encouragement" of local farmers. Improved surveillance can find the drug processing facilities and support border interdiction. Fight the criminals, fight the transporters, and the yield will, slowly but inevitably, drop. It'll never disappear entirely. But it may decline.

Here's another way to look at it. In the 1970s in Turkey, the US spent $40 million to take a couple thousand hectares of their poppy farms out of circulation. Extended to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, that'd be a $13 billion outlay in today's dollars... $600 US for every Afghan. Total foreign aid pledges of all kinds to Afghanistan from all countries are still currently well under $2 billion a year. So it stands to reason we've either got to up the ante considerably or give this a little more time.

Posted by BruceR at 07:35 PM