LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) – The United Nations reports that prices for opium have plummeted in Afghanistan, causing farmers to switch to other crops.
Two years ago, a farmer growing opium could earn 10 times as much as a farmer growing wheat on the same piece of land. Today, it is only worth three times as much. For many, that means producing the drugs is no longer worth the risk or effort.
In its annual report on Afghanistan's drug harvest, released on September 2, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that 800,000 Afghans abandoned the trade this year.
Opium, which accounted for 27 percent of Afghanistan's economy in 2002, now accounts for just 4 percent.
Across Afghanistan, 22 percent less land is cultivated with opium than last year. In Helmand Province, the reduction is steeper. Areas that last year were almost completely planted with the tall, colorful flowers were this year patched with green wheat fields.
Adam Khan, a smuggler who trades opium in several districts in Helmand, said the low price and the government's eradication operations in districts and villages previously controlled by the Taliban have badly affected the trade.
"I used to sell five kilos for 40,000 Pakistani rupees ($480). Now it is not more than 15,000 to 16,000," he said.
Farmer Dost Mohammad believes the traders are making their money, while the farmers suffer in poverty.
"The opium smugglers are immune between the government and Taliban," Dost Mohammad, who farms from the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah, told Reuters.
"In the government's eyes, they are businessmen. With the Taliban, they are their source of lots of money," he said.
Farmers who have their own small plots to work on have been branching out into planting other crops, but big landlords connected to dealers are still hiring laborers to plant opium, farmers say.
The United Nations believes traders are hoarding stockpiles, perhaps as much as 10,000 tons, or double the annual illicit demand for the drug.
Mohammad Usman, a 30-year-old opium trader who has been in the business for 12 years, said he had no intention of leaving it. He drives a Toyota Landcruiser around Helmand with six armed guards and carries a satelite cell phone.
"This is my business, if I profit or if lose money, I still can't think of alternatives," he said. "I understand that the prices have come down but no other crop can give me more than this."