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On the frontiers of development: illicit poppy and the transformation of the deserts of southwest Afghanistan

Mansfield, David (2019) On the frontiers of development: illicit poppy and the transformation of the deserts of southwest Afghanistan. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 1 (3). 330 - 345. ISSN 2516-7227

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Identification Number: 10.31389/jied.46


The physical and political geography of the deserts of southwest Afghanistan have gone through dramatic change over the last two decades. Located on the periphery of irrigated lands settled by the Afghan state in the 1950s and 1960s, this area has been at the forefront of technical change in Afghan agricultural production since 2003. Initially settled by small numbers of households escaping drought in the 1990s, tracts of these former desert lands were captured by local elites and communities from the adjacent irrigated lands. Access to improved technologies, including deep wells and diesel pumps, and a buoyant opium price, led to dry rocky soils being transformed into agricultural land. Further encroachment of these former desert lands came in 2008 with the drive to curb opium production in those accessible irrigated areas where the Afghan state, and foreign military forces, coerced the rural population to abandon opium. These counternarcotics efforts evicted the land-poor from the centrally irrigated valleys of the provinces of Helmand, Farah and Kandahar, leaving them few options but to seek new lives in the former desert areas. For those that owned land in the former desert areas, this supply of relatively cheap labour, skilled in opium production, encouraged a further expansion in opium poppy cultivation. Even in the wake of repeated low yields between 2010 and 2014, and fluctuating opium prices, farmers in these former desert areas adapted and innovated, exploiting herbicides and solar-powered technology to reduce the costs of opium production, and further increased the amount of land under agriculture. As this paper argues, these former desert areas should not be seen as marginal and remote, far from the reaches of the development programs of the Afghan state and its donors, but understood as engines of growth integrated into the global economic system; these are areas that have been transformed by improved access to modern technologies and an entrepreneurial local population that has fully exploited the opportunities illegal opium production offers.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2019 The Author
Divisions: IGA: United States Centre
Subjects: S Agriculture > S Agriculture (General)
K Law > K Law (General)
H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology
Date Deposited: 20 Dec 2019 11:48
Last Modified: 12 Sep 2021 23:15

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