Skip to main content

Afghanistan: Opium

Volume 689: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress they have made in assisting the Government of Afghanistan to control the cultivation of opium poppies.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is Afghanistan’s partner nation in counter-narcotics and is working with the Afghan Government to bring about a sustainable reduction in poppy cultivation. We are spending £270 million over three years to support the Afghan Government’s national drug control strategy. Last year’s overall increase in opium poppy cultivation was disappointing. In areas of Afghanistan where access to governance, security and development has improved, the reductions achieved last year have been sustained.

My Lords, this is a very difficult problem indeed, not least because access to the poppy fields is usually difficult—over hills or over mountains—so the products have to be relatively small and light. Packets of opium and heroin meet this need and are carried away by humans, not by vehicles—usually over the hills. Would it be worth considering a policy of improving access to the fields, by road or by track, so that a bulkier, non-narcotic product could be grown instead of the poppy?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that we have been looking at alternative rural livelihoods as part of our strategy. We will continue to do that, but of course this is a long-term strategy. The president of Afghanistan has said that, in his view, it will take at least 10 years, but improving the infrastructure in Afghanistan is clearly a key component of that and, in reconstruction terms, that is partly why our troops are there.

My Lords, does the Lord President agree that we are dealing not only with poppies growing in fields but also eventually with criminality and a large amount of human misery? She will no doubt be aware, as a former Secretary of State for International Development, that Susan George has highlighted the way in which the maldistribution of wealth across the globe contributes to the need of poor countries, and the poor citizens of those poor countries, to earn a livelihood in effect by growing drugs. Does she therefore agree that any strategy for dealing with the drug problem must include a major effort on the international development front along the lines that she has just mentioned, that this must be pursued with a great deal of urgency, and that there is a great need for public education about the link between poverty in the world, the production of illicit drugs, and the criminality and misery that result?

My Lords, of course I agree with the right reverend Prelate about the importance of tackling poverty across the world and the importance of public education. We are dealing with a situation where many farmers feel that the opium poppy is a low-risk crop in a high-risk environment, which is why ensuring security in Afghanistan is so important.

On criminality, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, in the past year, we have seen the passage of vital counter-narcotics legislation in Afghanistan and the conviction of over 300 traffickers. There was also an increase in drug-related seizures.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in discussions on this, there is a lot of support for the view that income replacement, as the right reverend Prelate said, is very important? But why cannot we buy some of the poppies instead of destroying them? Hearts and mind will go in the direction of the Taliban unless we can sustain the income of people. I think there is support in our own military for this strategy, too. Even though the Treasury might look askance at an open cheque book, ways and means can be found to ensure income replacement and the confidence of the people currently growing the poppies.

My Lords, a number of noble Lords have asked this question, and I specifically asked for some detailed briefing on it. There are currently no central government and law enforcement mechanisms in place in Afghanistan to set up and administer a system of licit cultivation, so traffickers would be free to continue to exploit the illicit market. There is also an issue of pricing, because there is no evidence to show that Afghan opium would be economically competitive in a global marketplace. For example, Australia, France, India, Spain and Turkey currently dominate the export market for licit opiates. I will give noble Lords a sense of the cost. In countries such as India and Turkey, licit production requires market support. In Australia, for example, the production cost for the equivalent of 1 kilogramme of morphine in 1999 was $56. In Afghanistan, it would be $450.

My Lords, how much consideration has the Department for International Development given to industrial hemp as an alternative crop? That plant can be used for industrial building purposes or packaging, its fruit is very nutritious and the hemp oil can be used for all sorts of energy purposes. That would be useful in Afghanistan, as well being a good export product. Will she consider that as an alternative crop to heroin poppies in Afghanistan?

My Lords, I am happy to take that suggestion away. I have had a substantial briefing on this Question, but industrial hemp was not covered.

My Lords, do not the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, indicate that the whole policy of eradication that our troops are currently being asked to pursue—a very dangerous policy indeed—is just not working? On the contrary, rather like the Augean stables, the more that we try to eradicate, the more poppies seem to be grown.

Is there not a case for the alternative idea that controlled licensing of poppy growing for pharmaceutical purposes should be developed? We recognise the point made by the noble Baroness about different costs, but surely that is now the line to take, bearing in mind that we should be going after the traffickers even more than at present and that trying to stop small farmers growing poppies to survive and feed their families will be almost impossible?

My Lords, we need an integrated strategy, which is precisely what we have. Poppy eradication policy and implementation is the responsibility of the Afghan Government. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 15,300 hectares of opium poppy was eradicated in Afghanistan last year, including about 5,000 hectares in Helmand province, but I entirely agree with the noble Lord that eradication on its own will not solve the problem. That is precisely why we are looking at access to legal livelihoods and at measures to catch the drug barons and bring criminals to justice, to encourage the development of rural communities and to provide alternatives for poppy farmers.