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Interview: Trade Can Cure Afghan Opium Addiction

A woman holds up opium as she attends a counseling session at the Nejat drug rehabilitation center in Kabul.
Afghanistan's drug business poses a threat to the entire Central Asian region. But more regional trade, not just tighter borders, could help solve the problem. UN Office of Drug Control (UNODC) Executive Director Yury Fedotov tells why in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel.

RFE/RL: Your agency says Afghan farmers are planting more opium poppy because prices are particularly high after plant diseases wiped out much of the opium crop in 2012. This suggests that rolling back drug production in Afghanistan is not just a question of eradicating poppy fields, but that it also is necessary to give famers incentives to plant alternative crops. You believe that one such incentive would be to boost regional trade, so farmers would have a bigger market for their agricultural products. How so?
Yury Fedotov: One of the most important and topical [objectives] is not only to continue this campaign of eradication, which by the way is quite successful. The Ministry of Counternarcotics and the counternarcotics police of Afghanistan succeeded in eradicating 11,000 hectares this year, which is a huge increase, a 173 percent increase, compared to the previous year. But, of course, that is still less than 10 percent of the overall area under the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan.
But that is not enough. These programs have to be supported by alternative livelihood projects which would give the farmers of Afghanistan more predictable licit activities. That is possible only through more broad international and regional cooperation including trade, exchanges, programs which basically would lead to generating more jobs, more markets for the realization of products produced by farmers in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Are Afghan farmers, in fact, seeking such opportunities?

When I travel to the region, when I meet with leaders in Afghanistan, not only government officials in Kabul but also governors in different provinces in Afghanistan, they are very interested in opening more border crossings with neighboring countries to ensure that their famers could export their production, vegetables, including dry fruits but also wheat, and be involved in this trade and economic cooperation in the region more visibly. And that would help at least to develop alternative livelihoods in the neighboring provinces of Afghanistan.
Yury Fedotov
Yury Fedotov
An important part of the GDP of Afghanistan is being generated by illicit drug money, laundered money from illicit drug trafficking, and that would be from 10 to 30 percent of GDP. Otherwise, the country lives on support and economic assistance, financial assistance, from the international community. So, this has to be changed, of course. And that is why these alternative livelihood projects are important not only from the point of view of counternarcotics but also for establishing the foundation for the sustainable economic and social development of Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: At this moment, neighboring states appear more focused on trying to close their borders to drug trafficking than opening them for regional trade. Do neighboring states -- which worry so much about the drug trade increasing after foreign troops leave Afghanistan in 2014 -- view regional trade as a way to help Afghan farmers out of the drug business?

The current level of understanding is not enough and we need to develop this sense of shared responsibility within the region.
RFE/RL: What are the stakes for Central Asia if more effective ways to reduce the drug business in Afghanistan are not found?

The drug trafficking generates instability, insecurity, feeds crime, corruption, all sorts of violations of law, and may have a negative impact on the stability in the whole region of Central Asia. And the health issue is not one of the last concerns. It is true, and it has been proven true in many regions, including in this region, when not only the country of origin like Afghanistan but also Iran and Pakistan, which are countries of transit, are affected by a high level of drug dependency. There are more and more drug users, heroin and opium, in Central Asia.
To some extent, the governments of these countries were more or less relaxed. They believed that, of course, there are drug-dependent people but they are not in such proportions that it could shake the foundations of the society. But now this is being changed and we have requests from some governments in Central Asia to increase our support, support provided from UNODC in terms of drug prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. They are concerned that they, too, may be affected by this danger of drug dependency which is spread out from Afghanistan to other countries.