13 March 2007

Afghanistan: the poppy prevails

Afghanistan's continued economic dependence on illegal opium continues to confound those who would save the country from itself.

One of the more constructive solutions suggested is purchasing Afghanistan's production for medical use. This, unfortunately presents a variety of problems:
  • It would have to be produced in a tightly controlled environment to prevent it being diverted to the black market, and Afghanistan officials are far too corrupt to do that.
  • There is no shortage of medical morphine in the world, and Afghanistan's crop would flood the market, driving legitimate growers in other countries into bankruptcy.
  • And, finally, illicit opium fetches five times the price of medical opium.
No silver bullet here.

The American solution is to spray the poppies with pesticides and offer the farmers alternative crops. This is the preferred approach to the production of cocaine in Colombia, producer of 90% of the North American supply. Unfortunately, it isn't working. The U.S. just completed a 7-year, $4.7-billion (U.S.) anti-drug program in Colombia, of which aerial spraying was a major part. Some of the results are as follows:
  • The purity of the product has risen while the price has fallen dramatically.
  • More land is planted in coca now than when the program began. Over 60% of the sprayed fields have been replanted, and new plots constantly appear.
  • The spraying often kills staple food crops, thus encouraging, if not forcing, farmers to replant coca in order to buy food.
  • In one typical village, peasants have had their crops sprayed at least five times, yet virtually every family still grows coca.
The Americans claim their program has reduced crime and destroyed large farms run by drug lords, so some good may have been done. But the coca plant remains triumphant. For Afghanistan and the poppy, there doesn't seem to be a silver bullet here either.

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