Chasing the dragon, pt. 3

411px-Illustration_Papaver_somniferum0Part 3…God’s own medicine

The Obama administration rescinded the Bush administration’s quixotic order to eradicate poppy fields in Afghanistan. Judging by hectare cultivation numbers and harvest yields, the plan was either never fully implemented or failed miserably. At the very least, farmers in Afghanistan are no longer being punished for trying to make a living. Like Bush, the Obama administration wants to reform Afghan agriculture and move it away from poppy cultivation. Unfortunately, these plans are still “being finalized”. To understand the problems inherent in the administration’s plans and possible futures for Afghan agriculture we need to examine Afghanistan’s situation, the opium poppy, and the history of opium cultivation.

Papaver somniferum (the sleep bringing poppy) has a long history with humanity: seeds have been found in Neolithic burials and recorded use dates to c. 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. For most of those years it was not an evil scourge, but one of the most important plants in the human cornucopia. Gods were depicted wearing its flowers. It offered pain relief without equal in the ancient world, along with mystical visions. But its downside was noticed at least as early as Galen, who wrote that opium users developed a need for the substance and the negative effects of habituation.

As late as the U.S. Civil War, opium was hailed as “god’s own medicine”. God is, apparently, merciful as the plant is widely tolerant of temperate conditions; capable of withstanding drought later in its life cycle; and not particularly susceptible to pests and diseases. More importantly, gathering opium is a fairly simple, if laborious, process. After the flower petals fall, the seed pod is allowed to ripen for roughly two weeks. Then a series of shallow slashes or pin-pricks are made in the pod; latex seeps from these incisions and is scraped from the pod. Sun drying removes the water content, and the result is raw opium.

Not only did our ancestors have an effective pain reliever that could be produced with relative ease, but one that kept indefinitely without processing. In many parts of the world, opium is still cultivated for these same reasons. That opium is non-perishable and addictive makes it the quintessential agricultural commodity. The East India Company built an empire on it and nearly brought down a civilization with it. Users as varied as English intellectuals, Chinese coolies and Southern belles found themselves ensnared by opium, but opiate addiction was treated as an unfortunate malady rather than a social scourge until the beginning of the 20th century. (It may be of interest to note that morphine was marketed as a ‘cure’ for opium addiction and heroin was claimed to cure morphine addiction.)

Contrary to popular belief, opium addiction does not incapacitate users…that is, the addict will not necessarily waste away in indolence. In the Orient, laborers were the most common users: opium allowing them to cope with the physical and emotional burdens of their low, social station. The US annexation of the Philippines set the stage for opium criminalization, when American officials were horrified by the rate of use on the islands. Until then, cultivation and use was spread broadly around the world, though the former was concentrated in Asia.

A series of control measures were enacted over the course of the 20th century, which partially curbed opiate use – insomuch as you could no longer buy it over the counter – but also pushed the commodity into the black market.  Opium became even more profitable, though it became significantly more dangerous to profit from it. In 1953, a follow up to the Paris Convention designated seven nations as legal, export producers and allowed any nation to produce a domestic supply.  The major producer nations left off the list ignored the convention. One country appealed the decision and asked for an export license, “arguing opium was a vital cash crop supporting up to 90 percent of the population”. (Booth, 188) That country was Afghanistan, and the appeal was denied.

So it is incorrect to say that Afghanistan has an opium problem because of the violence that has wracked the nation since the late 1970’s; the violence and instability has only exacerbated the “problem”. A rugged, landlocked nation without significant transport infrastructure that receives seasonal rains has few options in cash crops that are saleable beyond local markets. More importantly, the horticultural cycle of poppies allows Afghan farmers to get a poppy crop and at least one other crop from the same earth. The poppy requires c. 120 days to mature; however, it is planted in the fall and survives the winter as an immature plant beneath the snow. In this way, opium can be harvested in the spring, leaving the remainder of the growing season for food crops. It is common for Afghan farmers to plant a second crop like maize, though any vegetable crop could follow poppies.

(There are varieties of Papaver somniferum that mature in as few as 55 days, and as home flower gardeners know, poppies can be perennial…though it would make no economic sense for a farmer to treat the plant as a perennial.)

Many other crops could be more profitable than opium, which is labor intensive, in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, every factor affecting agriculture in Afghanistan works against other crops and in favor of poppies. The US would like to see opium replaced by other short season crops, like cucumbers, but few – if any – of them could harvest as early as fall plantings of poppies. Pushing the date of the first harvest forward constrains the second harvest. Moreover, non-cereal crops rot. Without a reliable way to bring farm products to profitable markets, any and every replacement crop will lose the financial battle. Even as the farm gate price of opium has fallen, farmers still plant it. This is partially a function of reliability: low prices for opium are better than rotten cucumbers worth nothing. It is also a function of credit: farmers (even in the US) generally start the season on credit, so the crop that will get the loan gets planted. In Afghanistan that crop is opium, and much to the chagrin of the US, the creditors are corrupt officials or anti-occupation insurgents.

Changing Afghan agriculture will be herculean task. Only 25% of Afghanistan’s pre-war irrigation systems are operational, a fact that does not limit poppy farming but does make it difficult to bring the other half of Afghanistan’s arable land into production or replace poppies with other cash crops. Only 58% of rural Afghans have access to even seasonal roads, and many of them live an average of three miles from those. Fertilizer prices rose 30% between 2007 and 2009. And, amazingly, there is a perennial shortage of seeds that might grow replacement crops. (from the CFR)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is keen on replacing opium with combination of common, market-garden crops and orchards. Several people have placed great hope in the Pomegranate, for which Afghanistan is famous. Tree crops, unfortunately, require years of dedicated land before producing reliable yields. Worse, many of Afghanistan’s orchards were destroyed after the US invasion…to plant poppies. Wheat is affected by world commodity market markets far more violently than opium, so any switch to wheat will last only as long as high wheat prices.

Replacing opium in Afghanistan will continue to fail so long as funding for agriculture is anemic. Between 2002 and 2006, USAID spent $4.4 billion in Afghanistan. Only 5% of that went to agriculture. The $24.7 million requested for agriculture related projects in 2009 is paltry compared to other expenditures, and it only raises the total spent since 2007 to $107.7 million. How much of those funds actually reach, and stay in, Afghanistan is questionable. USAID subcontracts many of its activities to private firms. (CFR) And the USDA will only have 64 staffers in Afghanistan by 2010; a massive increase from the three who were stationed there in 2003, but not anywhere near what’s needed.

If our commitment to Afghanistan is genuine, then our priorities must be rearranged. Attacking the opium trade is, in the long term, futile. If anything, all efforts should be directed at trans-shipment out of Afghanistan. Success in such a strategy would have the perverse effect of increasing farm gate prices, but that would help the Afghans who need it most. Farmers receiving more for their opium would need to plant less or be able to invest the proceeds in improving their farms. A civilian surge may well be required, though not under the assumption that Afghan farmers are ignorant and backwards. What Afghanistan does not need is to have the green revolution, export commodity model of agriculture forced upon it.

A hungry man is an angry man. Our efforts should focus on building sustainable agriculture models that provide sustenance and economic activity locally and regionally. High value export crops can be added after agricultural stability is attained, and any farmer worth the soil that he works will seek those out without any help from the USDA or Land ‘o’ Lakes. For the time being, opium fills that niche. We should avoid trapping Afghanistan in the globalized agriculture market, because that scenario is mostly likely to produce a return to massive poppy cultivation as soon as Afghanistan’s agricultural sector experiences any shock. The Afghan government is a long ways from being able to provide stability producing subsidies to farmers as the US does.

For every problem there are an infinite number of solutions and the problem of opium cultivation in Afghanistan is no different. Unfortunately, it appears the US has settled on the worst solution: lots of money for bullets and paramilitary drug war adventures. Until such time as our priorities for Afghanistan make sense in Afghanistan for Afghans and we focus our efforts on building the foundation of a stable society (food: politics starts at the breakfast table), we will reap only failure, violence and instability.

3 replies »

  1. Lex – You got me curious about the growing conditions in Afghanistan. I found a pretty cool soil map on-line (I’m sure you’ve seen this – http://soils.usda.gov/use/worldsoils/mapindex/afghanistan-soil.html).

    I was surprised that the Badakhshan Province in the top most part of the country produces enormous numbers of poppies. It seems very inhospitable – but it is on the Silk Road.

    Thanks for this interesting series. It’s clearly an issue that requires a change in thinking for actual results.

  2. Dawn, that’s one of the things that recommends poppies to Afghan growers: it is as tough a plant as you’re likely to find…especially if you’re looking for a cash crop. When i deal with gardeners who are struggling with poppy growing (all poppies produce alkaloids, if not morphine, similar to somniferum), i usually find that their problems stem from babying the plant. It is incredibly tolerant of terrible soil and actually wants to be starved of water once vegetative growth starts to slow and flowering begins.

    The Afghan method of planting in the fall means that snow, melt water, and spring rains take care of the plants without much effort from the farmer. (harvesting is another matter) I think that what the US doesn’t get is that Afghanistan already has a high value cash crop, and one that will outperform every other option we’re putting on the table…except in terms of legality and keeping the colonial overlords happy.

    And thank you very much for the map. I had not seen it, but i’m currently poring over it and i’ll be saving it for reference use if and when the Obama administration actually finalizes their Afghan agriculture plans.

  3. First, I would like to say this has been a very interesting and well informed series on the politics of opium, war and terror. Second, I would suggest the book “Good Muslim Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror” by Mahmood Mamdani. Very informative and damaging to the US establishment, especially the Bush family, who have been active in drug wars for at least 3 generations and are perhaps the most successful drug dealers of all time.

    I would also like to comment on this particular piece as it relates to the second part of Chasing the Dragon, where you speak of the production in the Golden triangle as being much higher in price and lower in output. I would suggest, and maybe you can comment further Lex, that this is due to a mixture of enforcement and legal production for the morphine and codein industries. Currently, Afghanistan may lack the ability to properly enforce due its current political situation, but the second side could still take effect, and create a possible industrialization in safer places. Instead of destroying the poppies and killing the farmer, lets buy the opium at higher prices, turn it into much needed and underutilized medicines. This will allow us, meaning the US backed Afghans, to more fully analyze the industry as well as provide much needed accountability. It will increase the livelihoods of farmers and allow them to also grow another foodcrop with fertilizer from the excess cashflow. They, like Iran, India, Thailand and so many other opium producing countries will have a sustainable cash crop and provide this much needed medicine to the world market, which need it so desperately.
    At the top levels, the Afghan government would then have access to funding to better enforce against the production and distribution networks of both heroin and terror, and oh yeah, develop the country. Obama has made the first step towards this, let’s see if he will follow through.