For farmers in some weak and troubled states, growing opium poppies or coca can be the only way to earn a decent income. Aid groups and governments are trying a new approach to successfully transition them away from these illicit crops for the long haul.
War-ravaged Afghanistan is the source of much of the world’s opium, and farmers there face many risks. Many have had their carefully cultivated poppy fields destroyed by intermittent government raids. If they manage to harvest, selling their crop means dealing with criminal or extremist organizations, including the Taliban. And while a successful poppy harvest can earn a farmer many times the best legal alternative, criminal processors and distributors make most of the profit from end products like heroin and morphine.
The US government and its aid arm, USAID, have allocated billions of dollars toward training Afghan farmers to grow legal crops like wheat, and for free or low-cost supplies like seeds. But these efforts have mostly failed to achieve long-term results. A principle reason: Afghan farmers lack what they need to make these new crops profitable.
“We are expecting [farmers] to produce tons of fruit and vegetables, to transport them on trucks they do not have, on roads that literally do not exist, to sell in globalized markets against which they cannot compete,” said Sanho Tree, a development expert and director of the Drug Policy Project.
One of these possible alternative crops is the pomegranate, an ancient and prized fruit in Afghanistan. Afghan varietals are widely known in agricultural circles for being especially delicious.
Demand for pomegranates in first-world markets has spiked in recent years, as health food enthusiasts tout the fruit’s anti-oxidant superpowers. Rising demand and prices have created an opportunity to develop a sustainable supply chain from Afghan farmers to the outside world.
London-based Plant for Peace is working to create just that: a complete Afghan pomegranate export market, from startup seeds to paying customers. In 2011, the group worked with 800 Afghan farmers to plant more than 100,000 pomegranate saplings.
While Plant for Peace provides training and start-up supplies, the group's commercial partner, Funktional Foods Ltd., works to “develop and satisfy demand” for raw Afghan crops and more finished products, like fruit bars.
Working to create change in a place like Afghanistan can be daunting. A top official recently warned a US Senate committee that opium production in Afghanistan surged in 2013 to an all-time high, despite 10 years and $7 billion worth of counter-narcotics efforts by the US-backed Afghan government.
James Brett, founder of Plant for Peace, has seen his share of setbacks while working in Afghanistan. His admiration of the Afghan people and belief that providing a competitive livelihood to poppy farming could help create a lasting peace keeps him motivated
“Whenever I’ve gone to Afghanistan in the last six or seven years of my life, whatever home I’ve passed, whatever door I might have knocked, every door has been open,” he told his hometown newspaper in January. “They have nothing, and they give their all.”
While the majority of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan, Columbia and Peru are the dominant sources for another ancient crop that is used to make an illicit drug.
The coca leaf has been chewed or made into tea as a modest, caffeine-like stimulant in several indigenous Latin American cultures for thousands of years. Coca is also the principal ingredient in cocaine, however, and has largely been outlawed across the globe.
Impoverished farmers in these countries face many of the same incentives – and dangers – as Afghan poppy growers. USAID has had success stories in following the supply chain model over the last 10 years by partnering with the Colombian and Peruvian governments to provide more than just seeds.
These partnerships have helped farmers form large cooperatives and connections with international businesses who are interested in their newly grown crops, like cocoa and coffee beans.
Officials acknowledge that the gains are fragile, however. Colombia’s coca cultivation has declined from a peak in the mid-2000s, but much of it may have simply migrated to neighboring Peru.
While helping to create a complete supply chain for alternative crops is generating some promising results, reducing international demand for illegal drugs may be the only long-term way for these crops to truly compete.