According to the UN, Afghanistan’s opium harvest this year was “halved” because of a crop disease. Sounds great, right? Not so fast.
Sudden, catastrophic decreases in opium supplies have two major effects within Afghanistan: they dramatically raise the price of opium, and they severely stress the farmers that rely on opium for income. The problems related to the first effect are obvious: an expensive crop is a tempting crop to grow, and more money for opium (don’t forget the universal assumption that the drug lords have years of supply stockpiled) means more money for baddies and criminals, both of which make it more likely there will be a moderate spike in growth next year.
The consequence from the second effect, stressing farmers, is much more worrying. Most opium farmers buy their seeds and food for the year on credit from drug lords (a system called salaam, which I discuss a bit here). When the Taliban frightened everyone into not planting opium in the year 2000, the economic effects were so great that something like 30,000 people fled to Pakistan from Helmand alone to avoid defaulting on specific loans. Post-Taliban, we’ve seen other cases where a catastrophic and sudden loss of opium income has resulted in farmers selling off their children to avoid violent reprisals from drug lords unwilling to accept a default.
No opium means they have no means of repayment. We shouldn’t celebrate a sudden and catastrophic loss of opium crops. It will hurt precisely the people we don’t want to—farmers—while not affecting the people we do want to—smugglers. It is a disaster. The only way to wean Afghanistan off opium is to do so gradually, giving normal people a chance to adapt. It is only this year that the international community decided to develop a microcredit system in Afghanistan. That’s a good first start. Another one is to stop the seed handouts: farmers know how to get what they want. So long as we subsidize bad decisions, we don’t help them develop a non-opium based self-sufficiency.
Either way, for God’s sake, let’s please not rejoice at this economic catastrophe.