Washington — Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was down sharply last year, according to the United Nations and private sources, but the plants are being grown in most provinces despite a ban imposed by the Taliban. Some areas grow more than others.

According to sources inside Afghanistan and on Taliban-run social media accounts, farmers in about 29 provinces have been growing poppies since spring. The largest amounts are grown in Badakhshan, Helmand, Herat and Nangarhar provinces.

Poppies, which farmers process to make opium, are being grown in the open and hidden behind property walls.

Taliban forces conducted thousands of operations to destroy the plant, as was announced on the X social media platform by the Ministry of Interior Counter Narcotics. It listed 29 provinces where they conducted eradication efforts.

The Taliban Interior Ministry said that in the past six months, its police conducted more than 15,000 poppy eradication operations on more than 3,600 hectares (8,900 acres). It also said thousands of people were arrested for violating the ban.

Abdul Haq Akhundzada, Taliban deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, told VOA there won’t be problems with narcotics this year.

“In those provinces, in areas where farmers grow hidden poppy, we conducted operations there as well, and we eradicated their hidden poppy,” he said.

Not everyone is peacefully accepting the opium ban and eradication. In northeastern Badakhshan province, violent clashes erupted last month between the Taliban and farmers. Two people were killed.

Local Taliban eradication officials reported that in Badakhshan, 35,000 to 40,000 acres were cleared.

Aminullah Taib, deputy Taliban governor in Badakhshan, said they were able to eradicate the fall and spring poppy cultivation in eight districts and will not allow further growth.

Farmers said the eradication was disrespectful of the local culture as the Taliban went to the villages without talking to the elders and informing the villagers about the process.

Abdul Hafiz, a resident of Argo district, where the clash between the farmers and Taliban took place, told VOA the Taliban entered people’s homes and destroyed their poppy crops “without a prayer, notice or acknowledgment.”

Poppy growth was at its high in 2021, the year the Taliban regained power. Farmers grew as much as possible, fearing the crop would be banned. While the Taliban banned poppy growth in 2022, they allowed the farmers to harvest what they had already planted.

It was a record year. The United Nations estimated that Afghan opium production was 6,800 metric tons (7,500 tons) in 2021 and 6,200 metric tons (6,800 tons) in 2022.

Last year, the Taliban were largely successful in banning the crop. In opium-rich Helmand province, poppy crop cultivation was down by 99.9%.

Yet how successful the ban was considered depends on the source.

The United Nations reported in October that poppy cultivation was down by 95%. Across Afghanistan, the U.N. said, opium cultivation fell from 233,000 hectares (575,755 acres) in 2022 to just 10,800 hectares (26,687 acres) in 2023.

But the imaging company Alcis, in its comprehensive satellite survey, says poppy cultivation was down by 86% to 31,088 hectares (76,200 acres).

William Byrd, a senior researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told VOA that the 9 percentage-point spread between Alcis and the U.N. makes a difference in how much poppy is estimated to have been harvested for 2023.

He said Alcis paints a more complete picture.

“Opium poppies’ distinctive characteristics and the tools developed by Alcis over a number of years facilitate the complete-coverage approach,” he said, adding that the U.N. relies on sampling different areas. Alcis analyzes satellite imagery for all agricultural land and poppy fields multiple times during the planting, cultivation and harvesting of opium poppy.

Results for 2024 poppy planting are expected by both organizations in the fall.

The economic situation in Afghanistan is dire as more than 12 million people face acute food insecurity.

The poppy ban takes about $1 billion in income away from the rural economy. So, even faced with the ban, impoverished farmers continue to grow poppies because they have few options for income.

For decades now, poppies and the resulting opium have been the biggest cash crop for farmers. Most practice subsistence farming. They have no extra income or time to buy the seeds of other plants and then wait years for them to mature to be harvested and sold.

Farmers complain that the Taliban government isn’t helping them with alternative crops.

Hassebullah, a farmer in Laghman province, told VOA that farmers need support and that they are still waiting for the Taliban government’s help.

“If a farmer doesn’t grow poppy and hashish,” said Hassebullah, who, like most rural Afghans, goes by his first name, “then as an alternative, the government should provide seeds and fertilizer, some agriculture products and other assistance.”

Taliban Deputy Counternarcotics Minister Javed Qaem told VOA that until farmers are provided alternatives, “unfortunately, we will be witnessing more clashes in the coming years.”

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