Opium growing in Afghanistan

Why does Afghanistan grow so much opium?

Opium production in Afghanistan went up by 43 per cent last year. Here's why the industry is so huge, and so difficult to shut down

For one of the poorest countries in the world, opium is a source of jobs and wealth. It’s also the main ingredient in heroin, a highly addictive drug still illegal in most countries. The industry grew by 43 per cent last year alone – here’s how it became so huge, and why it's next to impossible to shut down. 

Afghanistan is the world's leading opium producer. Production went up by 43 percent last year. According to U.S. estimates from 2014, around 90 percent of heroin worldwide is believed to come from opium poppies grown in Afghanistan.

Why has the opium industry become so strong in Afghanistan?

“The illegal opium industry will always go to the less-governed places,” says William Byrd, a researcher and expert on the Afghan drug trade. Afghanistan is insecure after decades of fighting – and that’s exactly why it’s such an attractive place to grow opium. It’s also cheaper and easier than growing wheat, which was how many Afghans made a living before the opium industry took off in the 1980s.

The constant and high demand for opium fuelled by drug users means farmers producing it have a relatively stable income – a rare thing in a country where work opportunities in the countryside are few and far between.

All this has made it extremely difficult for the government to implement a lasting ban on the crop. The Afghan government didn’t destroy nearly as many opium fields as usual this year – 90% fewer than in 2015 – allowing for the 43 per cent increase in production.

U.S. Marine patrols Opium field

Who profits from the opium trade?

Opium production is worth about 1.5 billion dollars a year, making up 7% of Afghanistan’s economy. It's one of the country’s largest industries (as a comparison, it's about the same ratio of Afghanistan's economy as the construction sector is of the UK's). Around one third of that money goes to farmers, and the rest to traffickers who process opium into heroin and export it. The amount that goes to farmers themselves is worth only about 1% of the international value of heroin – most of the profits go to organized crime groups who move heroin around the world, and some to funding militant groups in Afghanistan.

Map showing route opium takes from Afghanistan to Europe
Heroin trafficking routes between Afghan and Europe via UN Office on Drugs and Crime

And what if Afghanistan did manage to enforce the ban?

Shutting down opium poppy production would likely threaten the economic stability of Afghan farmers and traders (and by extension their families). That means they might turn against the state and instead support the Taliban (a militant group that has been challenging the government for decades and that controls some of the territory where opium is being produced).

And the problem wouldn’t end in Afghanistan. As long as there is a criminal demand for heroin, there will be a criminal supply of opium, says Byrd. The fact that the trade is illegal makes prices and profits high and attractive to the people involved. Even if production in Afghanistan magically disappeared, other countries would surely pick up the industry relatively quickly given the billions of dollars at stake.

“Blaming the producing countries for a problem that comes from the consuming countries is a problem,” says Byrd. Until heroin demand subsides, heroin supply isn’t likely to go away anytime soon – in Afghanistan, or anywhere else.

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Reader Comments

  • WhereAreTheVikings

    What a terrible, terrible shame. Western Civilization nurtured capitalism, and now capitalism is destroying it. And these young people seem to welcome the invasion of their homeland. The media and schools have been very efficient in wiping out all traces of blood and soil.

    • prollawalllynotahumanoid

      Capitalism isn’t the problem. It’s corrupt politicians taking bribes and kickbacks from Globalists and the Chinese.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        Maybe I should have said crony capitalism. Although Italians importing Chinese to make “Italian leather” shoes is not crony capitalism. It is capitalism, pure and simple.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          That would be crony capitalism and globalism combined. They aren’t concerned with the affect their policies have upon their citizens, the health and welfare of their society and culture or their economy. What it isn’t is fair-free trade to further national interests.

          • WhereAreTheVikings

            I’ve always seen them as one and the same, but perhaps they need to be named individually, just to bring home the point.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        But now that travel is so easy and borders are virtually down through H1bs and the like, theoretically you can’t blame capitalists for the pursuit of cheaper labor, although I do heartily blame them not being more patriotic than that. Perhaps the emerging nationalism will force them to voluntarily do what they should have morally been doing all along, and that is employing business practices that preserve their countries and nationalities. The government should be doing everything it can to encourage that, to the extent that small government should do anything but guard the borders and strictly, drastically, limit immigration.

      • Henry Lam

        It is China with its corrupted mindset affecting the world.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          No it is not. Capitalism is the fairest and least corrupt system of all.

          Socialism and communism is based on authoritarianism, coercion and police intimidation. It has and always will be rife with criminality, bribes and kickbacks.

          Corruption can be anywhere but it is the very basis of socialism and communism.

    • Henry Lam

      The government is too weak. They do not understand the mindset of communists and how they educate their people. Those communist people are only loyal to their country and could be dangerous. The immigration law should only accept those who accepted multiculturalism and taught from a democratic education system. This virus events clearly has shown how stupid to take China as a friend.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        The government is not too weak. Just weak-minded about some things.

  • Gabi Rodrigues

    For how many days can a country maximum close their borders to foreigners maximum? Like now, with the virus, everyone is using 30 days. Can it be more?