Right messaging and support for farmers led to drop in Afghan poppy cultivation – UN

27 October 2008 – The 20 per cent decrease in Afghan poppy cultivation recorded for this year shows that with the right kinds of messages and support from the Government, farmers and communities will respond and change their behaviours, a senior official with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said today.

Poppy cultivation in the strife-torn nation dropped by a fifth this year, from 193,000 hectares to 157,000, according to the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008 which was released by UNODC in August. It also found that 18 of the country’s 34 provinces are now opium-free – up from 13 last year.

“This is quite an accomplishment,” Christina Oguz, UNODC’s Representative in Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul, recalling the findings of the survey.

She said the reduction in poppy cultivation happened because “the Government had a very clear message – from President [Hamid] Karzai, to his Ministers, to Provincial Governors, to the Mullahs and community leaders.

“The message was clear: We will not tolerate poppy cultivation. And the farmers listened everywhere, except in the south… So when 90 per cent of the farmers in Afghanistan listened they showed that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behaviour and their attitudes or beliefs with the right kind of support.”

UNODC studied last season’s pre-planting public information campaign, which indicates that “there is a simple way of packaging information that, under the right circumstances, can send a clear message and compel a community into action,” said Ms. Oguz.

In Herat and Nangarhar provinces, for example, messages about the fact that poppy cultivation is against Islam and the Koran proved to be very powerful. Meanwhile, in Badakhshan, people responded more to the link between opium and violence in the form of local crimes. “The argument of disharmony and criminality in the community was very powerful there and it was also very powerful in Balkh,” Ms. Oguz pointed out.

“But interestingly nowhere did the farmers make a connection between terrorism on the one hand and poppy cultivation on the other hand,” she added. “What this tells us is that the content must be right for the message to have any influence on the audience and the relevance of the content varies from province to province.”

The means of communication is just as important as the message, she noted, especially in a country with high illiteracy rates and lack of access to television and radio. This made word of mouth a crucial form of form of communication, especially if it was through influential figures such as mullahs, or religious leaders.

And as important as public information is, it has to be backed up with the right kind of support to provide farmers with alternative livelihoods, Ms. Oguz stressed.

“Lack of food and lack of cash are real problems for very large parts of the population in provinces like Balkh, Badakhshan and Nangarhar, where very substantial reductions in poppy cultivation have taken place,” she noted.

Ms. Oguz added that both the Government and the international community are “playing with fire” if they do not honour the promises of support to the farmers who have stopped cultivating opium.

“As we speak now the farmers are actually making their decisions on whether or not to prepare their land for planting poppy for the next season,” she stated. “So this is exactly the time when something has to happen on the part of both the international community and the Government.”

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