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Afghanistan: Poppy Cultivation

Volume 696: debated on Monday 26 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What consideration they have given to rethinking the eradication of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

My Lords, we support the Afghan Government’s national drug control strategy, which is based on approaches that have worked in Thailand and Pakistan. It covers disrupting drug traffickers, developing licit livelihoods for farmers and building Afghanistan’s capacity to tackle the drug trade. Ground-based eradication targeted where legal livelihoods exist is a key element of the strategy. In August, my noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown announced new UK measures in support of the strategy.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but is she not aware that the policy is clearly a failure? Last year, the area under cultivation for poppies in Afghanistan went up from 165,000 hectares to 190,000 hectares, with poppy production increasing from 6,100 tonnes to 8,200 tonnes. Does she not accept that in view of the worldwide shortage of codeine and the serious morphine shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, now ought to be the time to look again at the possibility of buying up the poppy crop and recycling it for peaceful purposes rather than conducting a policy that is only driving the farmers into the hands of the Taliban?

My Lords, I do not accept that the strategy has been a failure. Like the noble Lord, I am aware of the figures, but it is also the case that in those areas of Afghanistan where the security is good, the amount of poppy that is cultivated has gone down exponentially. Thirteen provinces are now poppy-free. We have to be realistic in our expectations for progress. I note what the noble Lord says about looking for new ways forward; for example, making the cultivation of poppy licit and using it for drugs purposes. DfID has looked at that together with the World Bank, and they have concluded, along with NGOs and many other members of society, that it is not the best way forward at present.

My Lords, if the Government have decided against using the poppy product for health reasons, have they by any chance thought of any alternatives for farmers to grow? For instance, what about crocuses? They produce saffron, which is extremely expensive. Crocuses are pretty tolerant of climate, and would produce a high income for farmers, as poppies do at the moment. I do not hear any sounds about any alternative crops for farmers to grow.

My Lords, with our various partners in Afghanistan, we have done an enormous amount of work investigating other crops to ensure that farmers there have viable alternatives. That is part of the whole drug control strategy. For example, we have just invested £30 million in Helmand province, which is where the real problem lies because of the security situation, to assist farmers in looking for viable alternatives so they do not have to grow poppy but can grow other crops instead and gain funds from them. That is exactly what we are doing.

My Lords, the primary purpose of ISAF is to help create a safe and secure environment in which development can take place, However, does the Minister accept that while poppy cultivation is at anything like its present level in the provinces, where it is increasing, it will be impossible to secure any development gains at all? As has been indicated, the level of illegal poppy cultivation is increasing and a new approach is required.

My Lords, it is true that the security situation is very difficult. It is a chicken-and-egg situation: is the security situation exacerbated by the growing of poppy, or is the growing of poppy exacerbated by the security situation? We have to move on both fronts. We have to make those areas more secure, which we are doing within ISAF, but we also have to find alternative livelihoods for the farmers who have been, and still are, growing poppy. This is exactly what we are doing with our many partners.

My Lords, no doubt the Minister has studied the recommendations in the report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007. It emphasises rewards to non-opium farmers. Does she share my concern that only $270 million out of a total aid budget of $15 billion has been spent on agricultural support over the past six years? What are the World Bank and the World Food Programme doing to reform the agricultural sector and increase the amount devoted to alternative crops, not only in Helmand but in the many other parts of the south-east where drugs are grown?

My Lords, I cannot comment on the World Bank and the World Food Programme, but the noble Lord is right that we have to ensure that people who turn to livelihoods other than poppy cultivation are rewarded. That is why we announced in August that the 13 provinces that are now poppy-free are being given an extra $500,000 in development assistance. We must continue to do that. I shall write to the noble Lord on the figures for aid that we are providing to boost rural livelihoods across Afghanistan, but I can tell him that we are providing £30 million to Helmand province, which is a very good start.

My Lords, I have some sympathy with the Government’s approach, but are not they and the Minister concerned about the increased amount of drugs in prisons? Should not that influence their policy rather more than it is at the moment?

My Lords, the Government are deeply concerned about the increased use of drugs in prisons, as I am sure are all noble Lords.

Many noble Lords appear to favour the licit production of poppies. One of the reasons that we do not believe that it is a viable way forward is that the Afghan Government recognise that they do not have the justice or policing mechanisms to control the trade in opium poppies. If poppies were licit, more people would want to grow them, thereby increasing their number. That is why we and the Afghan Government are against it.