There seems to be a flurry of exchanges and posts and calls ahead of the next JCMB meeting in Tokyo (with counter-narcotics dominating the agenda) to prove that the poor farmers in Hilmand are driven to poppy cultivation by poverty, and those who have it so well in the north, center and elsewhere don’t really have to grow poppy. Case in point, the latest posts on ICGA Blog by the political scientist and ‘super-academic’ Barnett R. Rubin. The cynic in me always manages to be alarmed by such heightened activity just as many a predator in the wild would by sudden movements. So here it goes…
First, all this talk about poverty and poppy just makes me think of a common anecdote in the south that someone recently related to me that goes something like this: Upon being asked how much he earned from his opium crops the previous year, an illiterate Hilmand farmer said, after a long pause: “I dunno the rest of it but I know that I bought 160 Sarachas among other things…” (Saracha is the name in Afghanistan of a station-wagon like vehicle commonly used for passenger transport and as taxicab)
Now this may well be an exaggerated number, not least because who in the world needs 160 vehicles unless they want to open a full fleet limousine service for the drug barons of the south, but it goes to show the extent in the popular imagination of the wealth associated with narcotics. And not to say that all farmers have an equal access to that wealth, in fact I agree that the farmers get the smallest of the dividends from opium cultivation, but the externalities from opium cultivation, and the ripple effects and the multiplier effects (on consumption, for instance) of the opium wealth cannot but have an impact on the overall welfare of the residents of Hilmand.
I agree with Mr. Rubin that UNODC is wrong if it says that poverty does not have anything to do with poppy cultivation – but UNODC has never said such a thing. In fact, what they have said could be interpreted more closely to mean that poverty is no more primarily associated with poppy cultivation in Hilmand –the province that produces more drugs than the rest of the world put together, including all of Afghanistan’s provinces with the exception of Hilmand itself- and that is an assertion that I am comfortable with, especially if it is backed up with evidence from the field and research, as UNODC claims it to be. Of course nobody, not Mr. Rubin, not the UNODC is claiming that poverty is the only driver of opium cultivation, and neither is anyone saying that poverty is not a factor in poppy cultivation at all. I think nobody can make such over-generalized assertions with certainty and authority about any social and economic phenomenon anywhere, not least in the muddle and shady enterprise that is the poppy world of Afghanistan.
By the way, none of this is to support eradication-only policies or to negate the importance of building alternative livelihoods in order to wean farmers in the south off opium. It is just another voice calling for moderation on both sides, on part of those who have taken it upon themselves to defend the honest, poor, and never greedy poppy farmers of Hilmand (and where does this motto come from: “greed is good” and that it is part of the human nature, and that those idiot Marxists failed because they neglected this simple fact of the human nature?), and those on the other side who are allegedly insisting that poppy and poverty are not related at all.
The danger in trying to associate poppy primarily with poverty in the south is to give the wrong impression that because poppy cultivation is largely a southern problem, then by logical inference poverty must also be a major problem only in the south, unlike those other provinces that are relatively or completely poppy free, and hence better off. That would have tragic policy implications in a land already mired by social justice issues and with just about everybody crying out foul over the way aid money and development budget is allocated by provinces.
By the same token, of course it would be wrong to completely dissociate poppy from poverty -that would in effect turn on its head the difficultly-achieved consensus on the importance of alternative livelihoods.
Let’s just say that poppy and poverty and politics are somehow linked together and that the Raison d’être of this sinister ménage à trois has to do with more than the simple fact they all share the beginning two letters of their names in the English language -and leave it at that. I for the life of me can’t seem to get my head around the many nuances of it, or the fact that the problem that everyone is trying to address seems to be growing exponentially as the years go by, and as more money is spent on putting an end to it.
There you have it, my lowly two cents added to the billion dollar argument about a multi-billion dollar industry.