AREU Issues Papers Look at Poppy Cultivation in Rural Helmand from Varying Perspectives

AREU Issues Papers Look at Poppy Cultivation in Rural Helmand from Varying Perspectives

AREU is pleased to present two issues papers by Dr. Mansfield, Stirring Up the Hornet’s Nest and High and Dry. Both of these papers shed a light on the impact of poppy cultivation in rural Helmand but from two very different perspectives.

The papers were released today in a gathering at the Afghanistan Water Resources and Environmental Studies and Training Center (A Center of Excellence in Kabul University), Kabul University. Representatives of government ministries, non-governmental organizations and universities professors attended the gathering and actively participated in discussions.

In the first paper, the author finds that a majority of the population of rural Helmand have a very negative view of the counterinsurgency campaign—namely air raids of opium labs—conducted by the Afghan and international military forces. In the second paper, the author looks at how poppy cultivation in rural Helmand has led to the settlement of former desert areas, the changes in governance, and how opium production and prices impact the economic viability of these areas.

Many of the farmers interviewed for Stirring Up the Hornet’s Nest in rural Helmand do not recognize the claims of a “narco-insurgency” or the view that the “drugs business” is the insurgency’s primary objective, as is suggested by a US special operations commander in Afghanistan. “Farmers recognize the relationships between the insurgency and opium in much the same they see the government’s involvement with the drugs trade,” the paper explains.
According to the paper, the Afghan government and the United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) counterinsurgency strategy in Helmand often involves airstrikes against opium labs. According to the study, these airstrike campaigns have very little impact on the drug trade and Taliban revenues as these labs are “mom and pop” establishments are independently owned and far too many in numbers to be effectively rooted out. A farmer points out, “When one factory is bombed, there is another 1, 000 present. This campaign will not have any benefit for the government.” In fact, all these campaigns manage to do is increase hostility among the rural population towards the Afghan government and the international military forces.

Many of the farmers that were interviewed view the aerial strikes as evidence of the Afghan government’s priorities not being aligned with their own but rather influenced by the interests of the international community, which they believe is far more concerned about drug use in their own countries. They also see the strikes as an attack on their livelihoods because these labs are a local employer, a major purchaser of the primary local agricultural crop and are owned by local villagers or neighbors.

The study’s findings indicate that the farmers also blame the fall in opium prices on the lab strikes and as such, largely blame the Afghan government and the US military. This is despite the fact that a fall in opium prices is common during the immediate harvest period, mainly due to the market trying to reach an equilibrium when the scale of production is unknown. “Migrant harvesters make matters worse because they often sell their crop locally at a low price out of fear of being robbed, arrested, or required to pay a bribe if they were to travel with their opium,” the study says.

In High and Dry, Dr. Mansfield looks at the settlement of former desert areas in Southwest of Afghanistan, mainly the area north of the Nahre Boghra in Helmand. The settlement was driven by tribes local to the area, power actors linked to the former Governor, the uptick in violence in 2007 and 2008, and the prohibition of opium poppy in central Helmand in late 2008.

According to High and Dry, an increase in access to technology, relatively low land prices, and a recovery of opium yields continues to draw people to these former desert lands. However, it is important to note that these gains in productivity—and therefore, the lives of the population that live there—is precarious. A recent increase in the use of herbicides and solar technology to power deep wells has been instrumental in helping farmers recover from falling yields and also lowered production costs. Unfortunately, these developments are said to pose a threat to agricultural sustainability and the livelihoods of the population. This is largely due to the fact that the groundwater in the area is falling at an increasing rate due to the growth of solar-powered technology and there are signs the water is contaminated with nitrates.

This paper also looks at the extent to which the Taliban imposes its rule on the local population, particularly given that the government’s influence seems to be negligible in the area. The population also holds a very negative view of the government, mainly due to the widely held view that they were driven out of the canal command by the authorities. They also expressed resentment towards the government’s security operations and air strikes against drug labs. They saw the air campaigns as further evidence of both the influence of foreign actors on the Afghan government and also the government’s inability to establish direct control over the area.

AREU Director, Dr. Orzala Nemat, says, “The findings shared in these papers can bring much-needed insight to development workers, civil society, and the Afghan government on this subject matter and help shape future efforts.”

AREU is an independent research institute based in Kabul that was established in 2002 by the assistance of the international community in Afghanistan. AREU achieves its mission by engaging with policymakers, civil society, researchers and academics to promote their use of AREU’s research-based publications and its library, strengthening their research capacity and creating opportunities for analysis, reflection and debate.

The EU funded three-pronged research project was launched in December 2016 aims to contribute to improving the sustainability and increasing the wealth of rural population, by enhancing the social and economic development of rural communities and reducing hunger vulnerability. The project which has a budget of EUR 2 million covers researches on Natural Resource Management, underground water, and food zone policy in Afghanistan.

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