Solar panels driving opium trade in Afghanistan

opium solar panels Afghanistan

The Taliban walks between hypocrisy and holiness while trying to figure out how to profit from poppies and not damage its local economy. Image via the NY Times. 

Solar panels of the DIY variety that provide electricity to pumps in the lost and forlorn areas in Afghanistan have led to an opium surge reported the BBC in 2020. The pumps have allowed Afghans have started digging deeper wells since 2014 and this has led to bumper crops year after year. In response the Taliban which both profits and denounces opium when it suits them, have started dismantling solar arrays so crops dry out

Still, more and more Afghans are investing several hundred dollars a year for seeds and equipment hoping to make a $5000 profit. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan produced 83 percent of the world’s opium from 2015 to 2020.

The solar powered electric pumps also allow for farmers to grow all manners of crops such as wheat, pomegranates and garden plots in a critical time when dozens of millions of Afghans face food insecurity.

oppy fields from space see the solar panels

Poppy fields from above in Afghanistan. See the solar panels?

While Afghan governments have pledged to stamp out opium production  and drug trafficking they are likewise unable to forgo the billions of profits. Opium profits the Taliban and fuels the Taliban

“We’ve stood by on the sidelines and, unfortunately, allowed the Taliban to become probably the largest funded non-designated terrorist organization on the globe,” said a U.S. official with knowledge of Afghanistan’s drug trade.

men working with poppies for opium

Men working in the poppy fields, New York Times

“The US and international partners have continued to pull out and not addressed poppy cultivation,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “What you’re going to find is that it has exploded.”

Now after 20 years and the Taliban back in power they announced April 3 that poppy cultivation is outlawed and violators will be punished under Shariah law.

The Taliban had enforced an effective ban on poppy cultivation in 2001, just before a US-led international military intervention toppled the regime. From 2002 to 2021, the US government spent almost $9 billion on counternarcotics as it fought Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Taliban bans opium production for their benefit

The opium business earned Afghanistan about $1.8 billion to $2.7 billion last year, according to the United Nations with sales accounting for up to 14% of its GDP.  

According to a European Union-funded research project by David Mansfield opium farmers now rely on at least 67,000 solar powered water reservoirs. He has studied illegal economies and rural livelihoods in Afghanistan for the last two decades.

“It’s too bad for Afghans because poppy is the wealth of the Afghan people,” Shah Agha, 35, a poppy farmer from the Zari District of Kandahar, told the told the NY Times

After investing about $500 on seeds, fertilizer, labor and other expenses, Mr. Agha said, he hoped to gross about $5,000 after selling the 20 kilograms of opium he expected to harvest this spring.

The opium ban was met with a collective shrug this spring by southern farmers, many of whom were already harvesting their spring crops. Opium prices surged almost immediately, several farmers said, to roughly $180 per kilogram from $60 per kilogram.

“I think they banned it for their own benefit because most of the smugglers and Taliban commanders have tons of opium, and they might want to increase the prices,” Mr. Agha added.

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