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Taliban bans poppy production, in move likely to further impoverish Afghans

Afghan farmers harvest poppy in Helmand province. Photo: AP

Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban announced a ban Sunday on poppy production, even as farmers across the country began harvesting the bright red flower that produces the opium used to make heroin.

The order warns farmers that their crops will be burned and they can be jailed if they proceed with the harvest.

The ban is reminiscent of the Taliban’s previous rule in the late 1990s when the religion-driven movement outlawed poppy production.

At that time, the ban was staggered and implemented countrywide within two years. The UN verified that production had been eradicated in most of the country.

However, after they were ousted in 2001, farmers in many parts of the country reportedly ploughed over their wheat fields – which had been almost impossible to bring to market because of the lack of roads and infrastructure – and returned to poppy production.

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Poppies are the main source of income for millions of small farmers. Photo: AFP

During the last years of the Taliban rule, wheat was rotting in fields because the farmers were unable to bring it to market to be sold and ground into flour.

Poppies are the main source of income for millions of small farmers, and day labourers who can earn upwards of US$300 a month harvesting them and extracting the opium.

Today, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium and in 2021, before the Taliban takeover, produced more than 6,000 tons of opium, which a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said could potentially yield 320 tons of pure heroin.

Afghanistan produces more opium than all opium-producing countries combined and last year was the sixth straight year of record opium harvests. That’s the case even as the US and international community was spending billions of dollars to eradicate poppy production.

The Taliban reportedly made millions of dollars charging taxes on farmers and middle men to move their drugs outside Afghanistan and senior officials of the US-backed government were implicated in the flourishing drug trade.

Washington spent more than US$8 billion trying to eradicate poppy production in Afghanistan during its nearly 20-year war, which ended with the return of the Taliban in August.

Nearly 80 per cent of heroin produced from Afghan opium production reaches Europe through Central Asia and Pakistan.

Workers collect poppy tears, or the raw form of opium, at a plantation in Kandahar. Photo: AFP

In desperately-poor Afghanistan, the ban on poppy production will further impoverish its poorest citizens.

According to a UN report in 2021, income from opiates in Afghanistan was a whopping US$1.8-2.7 billion, more than 7 per cent of the country’s GDP. The same report said “illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan” make much more.

The Taliban’s ban comes as the country faces a humanitarian crisis that spurred the UN to ask for US$4.4 billion last month as 95 per cent of Afghans do not have enough to eat.

The ban, while hitting drug production houses hard, is likely to devastate the small farmer who relies on his opium production to survive.

It’s difficult to know how the Taliban rulers will be able to create substitute crops and financing for Afghanistan’s farmers as their economy is in free fall and international development money has stopped.

Poppy production and income are often used as a form of banking among Afghanistan’s poorest, who use the promise of the following year’s harvest to buy staples such as flour, sugar, cooking oil and heating oil.

The decree also outlawed the “transportation, trade, export and import of all types of narcotics such as alcohol, heroin, tablet K, hashish … drug manufacturing factories in Afghanistan. are strictly banned”.

When the Taliban last ruled, they employed village elders and mosque clerics to enforce the ban and in villages that ignored the ban, the Taliban arrested the elders and clerics, as well as the offending farmer.

As a result the elders and clerics were incentivised to prevent poppy production in their areas.

Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced the ban at a news conference in the capital.