Forsaking the Flower for a More Hopeful Future


February 10, 2006

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    Nigel Pont for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps is helping Afghan farmers transition from illicit opium poppy cultivation to sustainable livestock production. Photo: Nigel Pont/Mercy Corps Photo: Nigel Pont for Mercy Corps

As Afghanistan struggles to lift itself from decades of conflict and oppression, a flower threatens to keep its society down.

Cultivation of opium poppies, from which the drug heroin is derived, is increasing throughout the impoverished Afghan countryside. However, Mercy Corps is finding ways to help farmers eliminate their dependency on poppies by introducing agricultural solutions that will net them profits in the new Afghan economy.

The poppy problem has been escalating for the last few years, especially after the collapse of the Taliban regime. Despite the current Afghan government's eradication efforts and incentive strategies for farmers who switch to other cash crops such as wheat, opium production is on the rise throughout the country: almost 257,000 acres of land were under opium poppy cultivation in 2005.

Growing opium poppies is extremely profitable for poverty-stricken Afghan farmers. While an acre of wheat will make about $120 for a farmer, an acre of poppies will net him over $2,500 - more than twenty times the amount of the wheat crop and a significant sum of money in a country where the average income is only $800 per year. In fact, opium exports from Afghanistan totaled $2.7 billion in 2005, over 52 percent of the country's entire gross domestic product. An estimated 10 percent of all Afghan households are involved in some aspect of poppy cultivation.

While the economic numbers are alarming, the human costs are absolutely staggering: it's estimated that there are up to 60,000 opium addicts in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, alone. Drug abusers throughout the country certainly number into the hundreds of thousands. In addition, opium exports from Afghanistan are taking a toll on neighboring countries: Iran estimates as many as 1.2 million opium addicts and Pakistan has over 700,000 users.

Heroin use is also contributing to a sharp rise in HIV/AIDS infections throughout the region. Thousands of new cases have been reported in neighboring countries, taxing already-faltering health systems. In Tajikistan, it's estimated that well over 80 percent of newly HIV-positive individuals became infected through sharing dirty heroin needles.

The renewed spread of opium poppy cultivation throughout Central Asia, and especially across Afghanistan, is disastrous for children and families. Cash-strapped farmers are selling out future generations to provide for their families today - it's a vicious cycle.

Mercy Corps is finding solutions to help farmers break that cycle and ensure safer and economically viable futures for their families.

A better alternative

Mercy Corps, which has served over 2.5 million Afghan beneficiaries since 1986, is successfully developing agricultural and economic programs to empower and provide opportunities for poor families. These new opportunities, in the form of income earned from meat, wool and hide from livestock, present a sustainable economic alternative to poppy production.

A recent study conducted by the United Kingdom-based Macaulay Institute and Mercy Corps found that the prevailing prices for meat, wool and hide in urban markets is sufficient to justify a switch to livestock production as a feasible income source for Afghan farmers.

"High population growth and strong economic recovery since 2002 in Afghanistan is increasing the buying power of urban consumers. One consequence of these changes is a firm demand for meat, particularly in the cities and larger towns," the report reads. "However, as a result of the worst drought in living memory, livestock numbers have decreased dramatically in the last seven years and cheap imported frozen chicken now accounts for almost one-third of the meat sold. One of the challenges facing the national government, assisted by the international community, is to rebuild the Afghan livestock sub-sector to a point where it can once again supply much of the meat consumed in the country and give livestock owners a satisfactory return."

The transition to livestock production also creates other jobs in rural and urban areas. Butchers, tanners and wool-spinners are needed to finish raw materials into consumer goods. Wool can be made into clothes, rugs or other household items, resulting in jobs for tailors and carpet-makers. Animal hide can be fashioned into belts, shoes and other goods, bringing a high resale value to skilled artisans.

The return to livestock-based agriculture works across all sectors of the Afghan economy; it satisfies a burgeoning market while providing income for farmers, skilled tradesmen and merchants. While not as profitable as poppy cultivation, it is a legal, long-term income solution that encourages farming families to move from the destructive opium trade.

The experience to make a difference

Mercy Corps currently has several agricultural and economic programs throughout Afghanistan to help farming families bolster their incomes and strengthen their households, including:

  • Afghanistan Rural Recovery Program: This project is benefiting about 75,000 people through agricultural and livestock production, vegetable gardening, poultry enterprises for women and veterinary field units.
  • Southern Afghanistan Quality Seed Supply: Mercy Corps has worked with over 100 independent seed growers for more than seven years to produce high-quality seed stock so that marginalized farmers in southern Afghanistan can develop more self-reliant livelihoods through larger, more reliable crop yields.
  • Animal Health Support Program for Afghanistan: This project improves the food security of rural households by enhancing livestock production in Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan Provinces. It focuses on teaching marketing methods and providing affordable veterinary care.
  • Marketing of Livestock and Livestock Products: This program aims to increase understanding of livestock as a viable alternative to poppy production by identifying market demand for livestock products and providing both logistical assistance and technical support.

There are many challenges to moving Afghanistan from a rural economy dominated by illicit opium production to a viable economic system based on agricultural products. However, Mercy Corps' experience and commitment to Afghanistan, coupled with the resolve of the country's farming families, is a formidable combination that aims to transform a country reeling from troubled times.