Key Takeaways

  • A ban on opium poppy cultivation in the canal command area in the absence of viable alternatives is fuelling anti government sentiment in areas both north and south of the Boghra canal;
  • The Governor has succeeded in projecting the appearance of state power into contested space in central Helmand by drawing on the presence of foreign military forces. However, without viable alternatives and a credible national security presence in central Helmand a resurgence in cultivation is inevitable once foreign military forces have left;
  • There is a return to opium poppy cultivation in many of the areas within the canal command area in 2011/12 as farmers look to respond to higher opium prices and recoup the losses they have experienced over the last two growing seasons;
  • The rate of migration to the area north of the Boghra canal is increasing, fuelled in part by the high price of opium, but also by the impact that the ban and has had on more marginal socio-economic groups, particularly amongst former sharecroppers from within the canal command area;
  • Opium poppy is increasingly being monocropped in the area north of the Boghra as farmers who have settled there in the last two growing seasons look to finance the purchase of land in the former desert area so as to avoid having to return to the canal command area, where their economic prospects are currently bleak in the absence of opium production.


This paper provides an overview of the findings of in depth research conducted in Central Helmand during the fall planting season of 2011. The purpose of this research was to examine how farmers lives and livelihoods had changed over the previous twelve months and identify how this had impacted on levels of opium poppy cultivation in the 2011/12 growing season. It involved interviews with 373 individual farmers in 28 different research sites located to the north and south of the Boghra canal and builds on a detailed body of fieldwork dating back to May 2008.

Deteriorating Quality of Life

Income diversity in central Helmand remains restricted to the areas around the major urban areas of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk. Those households that have maintained their quality of life despite the opium ban typically: (i) own particularly large landholdings; (ii) have access to non farm income; (iii) are located near to provincial centres and cultivate a range of high value horticultural crops (iv) have grown opium poppy and avoided eradication (v) and/or have sold assets, including opium stocks.

However, in the absence of opium poppy cultivation most farmers in the canal command area primarily grow low-risk-low-return crops such as wheat, cotton, maize and mung bean, combined with a small amount of melon or watermelon production. Those that do so and who do not have a source of non farm income have seen a significant reduction in their quality of life, including reductions in the quantity and quality of food consumed and delays in their expenditure on healthcare. A calculation of the gross earnings of those households that own land and have not shifted to growing two seasons of high value horticulture and/or non farm income show that they are typically earning less than US$1 per person per day, whilst those sharecropping land are earning considerably less- often as little as US$0.20 per person per day. The pursuit of dramatic reductions in cultivation in the absence of alternatives has fuelled anti government sentiment in the canal command area, with the Governor being increasingly singled out for particular criticism.

In response to the increase in opium prices (as high as 110,000 PR/man during the planting season) and the loss in income experienced over the last few growing seasons there is growing evidence of a return to opium poppy cultivation in many of the research sites in the canal command area. Many farmers that report that they did not cultivate in the 2010-11 growing season claim to have planted opium poppy in November/December 2011.

Respondents in the canal command area also indicate that support for the government in the canal command area is increasingly contingent on its position on opium poppy cultivation during the coming season. Allegations of corruption over the provision of development assistance are rife and there is a growing sense that whilst there are improvements in physical security within the canal command area it is the government, and its ban on opium production, that is held responsible for falling living standards.

Increasing migration north of the Boghra canal

The latest phase of settlement in the area north of the canal is a response both to the significant rise in opium prices since the harvest in 2010 and the dramatic reductions in the levels of opium poppy cultivation within the canal command area. These reductions have been significant since the 2008/09 growing season with cultivation falling in Nawa Barakzai by as much as 85% between 2008 and 2010, and the amount of land dedicated to opium poppy falling from 60% of agricultural land in Marjah in 2010 to only 4.8% in 2011. In contrast, the amount of land under agricultural production in the area that lies north of the Boghra canal and south of Highway 1 has increased from 15,777 hectares (ha) in 2008 to 26,571ha in 2010.# Whilst there is not an official breakdown of the extent of opium poppy cultivation in this area# fieldwork suggests that it is increased levels of opium production that have financed the installation of tubewells and the subsequent expansion in agricultural production that has occurred north of the Boghra canal.

The initial expansion in the settlement of the area north of the Boghra canal occurred between 2002 and 2004 and was driven by powerbrokers with links to the Provincial Administration. This was followed by the subsequent sale of the land by these powerbrokers or the people they had gifted it to.

What can be seen in central Helmand during the latest phase of settlement is not simply the classical balloon effect so often referred to in the drug control literature, where reductions in supply in one area result in increases in another due to demand remaining constant, but a physical relocation of households from the canal command area to the area north of the Boghra.

The movement of people north of the canal in this latter phase consists of those that have been most disadvantaged by the reductions in cultivation within the canal command area. This consists of both the landed and the landless. Clearly the economic situation is less acute for those who own some land, however, many of those with insufficient land, large numbers of family members and high dependency ratios do face the prospect of significant reductions in their level of income and are looking to find ways to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Where possible these households have sent members to work in the area north of the Boghra (or in Bakwah in Farah) whilst maintaining their farms in the canal command area.

The landless are the most disadvantaged by the reductions in opium cultivation in the canal command area. Primarily they find it harder to find land in the canal command area as the shift to less labour intensive crops such as wheat means that many landowners can cultivate their own land with family labour and do not need to hire additional labour. Furthermore, those that do find employment in the canal command area under a sharecropping arrangement can find themselves restricted to growing crops of lower value and receive a smaller share of the final yield due to the reduced labour input of alternatives such as wheat.

Those who do not own land are further disadvantaged by the fact that they are the least likely to have received any development assistance that might have been distributed in the area. Local practices determine that a farmer without land is not entitled to wheat seed, fertiliser or other agricultural inputs that have been provided such as polytunnels or waterpumps. Nor will they receive any cash for work unless a landowner elects to put their name on the lists of beneficiaries drawn up by local officials in conjunction with the village representatives. It is claimed that the manner in which these village lists have been constructed, typically resulting in the families of officials and the rural elite obtaining the bulk of the resources available, limits this assistance to wealthier members of the community who are the most likely to have alternatives to opium production.

The combination of the diminished prospects of finding land under a sharecropping arrangement, much lower returns on the crops currently being grown in the canal command area, and the absence of targeted development assistance, has led to significant reductions in income for this group of farmers . Consequently the typical response to the enforcement of the opium ban in the canal command area has been to relocate to the area north of the Boghra canal to cultivate opium there. In fact, one third of those interviewed in the eight research sites north of the Boghra had settled there since the 2010/11 growing season, many complaining of the significant deterioration in their quality of life following the ban on opium production in the canal command area.

The population in the area north of the Boghra canal is also showing growing signs of hostility towards the government. The influx of those that have been impoverished by the opium ban in the canal command area in the 2009/10 and 2010/11 growing seasons, such as former sharecroppers and village mullahs, is further fuelling opposition to the government. Efforts by the provincial authorities to push into the desert land north of the Boghra, as well as in former desert land in the area south of the canal, in order to seize or destroy tubewells, is making the population even more resentful and further fuelling support for the Taliban in these areas. In the light of the ban on opium respondents increasingly perceive the Taliban as protecting the economic interests of the rural population.

Expansion in opium poppy cultivation north of the Boghra canal

It is possible to see marked increases in levels of opium poppy cultivation in the area north of the Boghra in the 2011/12 growing season. Many farmers who had previously cultivated a combination of wheat and opium poppy in the 2010/11 growing season have abandoned wheat entirely in 2011/12 and only cultivated opium. This is not just a response to the relatively high price of opium but also a consequence of the impact of the dramatic reductions in the level of cultivation in the canal command area in the last two growing seasons and how it has affected different socio-economic groups.

By reducing the demand for agricultural labour, the ban on opium production in the canal command area has been particularly effective in creating a cheap and mobile labour force that is skilled in opium cultivation. Typically sharecroppers receive 1/3 of the final opium yield if they contribute to the costs of production or 1/4 if the landowner meets all the costs, however, there are now a growing number of sharecroppers north of the Boghra receiving only 1/7, 1/6 or 1/5 of the final opium crop – rates that reflect the economic circumstances of some of those migrating north of the canal. Many of these recent migrants indicate that if opium continues to be banned in the canal command area they are looking to purchase their own land north of the Boghra, despite many of the hardships of relocating to the area.

The high price of opium and the availability of cheap skilled labour has further established the economic incentives for those with capital to bring further land under permanent agricultural production north of the canal. For example, some of those that moved to the former desert land north of the Boghra during the earlier phases of settlement are taking advantage of this increased supply of cheap labour and cultivating a greater amount of their existing agricultural land with opium poppy under sharecropping arrangements. Other landowners who did not have the capital and labour to bring all their land under agricultural production have given their land to tenants to cultivate on the understanding that it is the tenant that has to meet the installation and recurrent costs of the tubewell. Once these initial investments are made this land can be cultivated by the landowner, leased to a further tenant or sold as a going concern for around 80,000 PR per jerib (at 2011 prices).


The dramatic reduction in opium poppy cultivation that has been achieved in the canal command area of central Helmand since 2008 is unsustainable. The absence of viable alternatives across much of the canal command area is fuelling resentment towards the government and resulting in both the relocation of production and those most disadvantaged by the ban into the former desert land north of the Boghra canal. High opium prices are exacerbating this process and establishing the economic incentives for the expansion of opium poppy cultivation into the area during the 2011/12 growing season. Once under agricultural production it remains to be seen whether this former desert land will ever revert back, even after opium prices have fallen, thereby leading to further environmental degradation in this former desert land. Given the amount of land available, it is possible that any reductions in opium poppy cultivation in the canal command area could be more than offset by an expansion in the area north of the Boghra canal. It is likely that a policy that continues to press for further eradication and does not provide economic alternatives to the different socio-economic groups involved in opium poppy cultivation, will further drive production into the desert north of the Boghra (and elsewhere) and weaken the Afghan governments position in the canal command area in the run up to transition.

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One Response to Re-Framing the Debate: Central Helmand in the 2011-2012 Growing Season

  1. Francis Kenefick says:

    Dr. Mansfield has, yet again, skillfully pointed out the foundation / ‘trying-to-feed-my-family’ factors regarding the continuing production of opiates in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It’s the faltering socioeconomics within a stressed, war-torn Region that drives Locals’ responses to, at times, gain badly needed income via World pressures for what many call illicit substances. With the shortage of morphine-derived opium gum, even the Brits — one of the prominent opponents of opium by Helmandis, has itself legalized, U.K.-domestic Poppy production. Afghans should be given “legalized” production status, as are seven other ‘World-Leaders’ countries.
    Dr. Mansfield understands the (Landless) Locals’ pressures for incomes. We, as stated many times before, can intelligently use (managed….) opium production as an inter-cropped “transition” feature, as part of a Water/Land Development and Jobs-for-the-People-to-Stop-the-Violence for the suffering Southwest Afghans.

    Frank Kenefick, Co-author of ‘Opium in Afghanistan, The Good Evil’, 2003

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