Afghan poppy trails and versatile dependencies

Poppy – semiotically, the flower has an innocent connotation almost sounding cute. Visually, the sea of faded pink and white blossoms in a poppy field creates a romantic atmosphere. But, after the harvest the sweet flowers dramatically change their meaning. With their art installation ‚Poppy – Trails of Afghan Heroin’ – currently exhibited at c/o Berlin Exhibitionhouse for Photography – Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth want to open our eyes for the brutality of international drug trade based on poppy.

For the past two decades both artists followed the routes of Afghan heroin, from Afghanistan to all directions, North, East, South and West, via Russia to West Europe and from China, to East Africa and Dubai. Their multimedia installation documents the dark sides of globalisation. Brutal gang wars, illegal money laundering, corruption, trafficking of women and deathly addiction – they show an impressive kaleidoscope of criminality, crisis and chaos.

Once, goods, cultures and religions were exchanged by the famous Afghan Silk Road. Today, mainly drugs are smuggled and chaos reins the route. Drug trade especially flourishes in conflict and war regions. “The opium trade loves smuta, the Russian word for chaos and confusion. Wherever the heroin caravan passes, organized crime is surging. The volume of money being made is so vast that whole nation states are being undermined”, explains a designated female voice while images picturing dealers, prostitutes, boarder soldiers, police man and children are displayed. Smuta rules conflict regions, and drugs are one integral part of it.

Dependency and Addiction


Afghanistan produces more than 90 % of the available opium worldwide. It is a centre of the global drug network. Around 50 billion US-dollars are earned annually with Afghan heroin. Surely, small farmers who actually cultivate the poppy definitely do not cream off the lion’s share. Corrupt state officials, powerful warlords and the Afghan Taliban are the main beneficiaries.

Nevertheless, the opium production builds the foundation of the life of many Afghan farmers. Even though they don’t find themselves in a very rosy position, their everyday life might look worse without the pink flowers. In 2014, a governor from Kandahar clarifies:

“The farmer benefits from cultivating poppy in multiple ways. They don’t need good roads, cold storage, tractor, as farmers can carry the poppies by hand to their storages or wherever they want to sell them. And the best thing is that the buyers directly pay them a visit to get the poppy.”On the one hand, economically speaking, opium and heroin are very potent goods traded in heavy business deals. On the other hand, they weaken societies and their consumers irrevocably leading them into dependencies and addiction. All together around 15 Million people are consuming heroin synthesized from Afghan poppy. Following the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, approximately 8 % of the Afghan population are addicted to drugs – hence, about a million of the 15 to 64 year-olds, whicht is twice as much as the global average. Many use heroin and opium as a medication against the dreariness of a life in crisis.Drug use on the streets of KabulFor centuries opium was used as a tranquilizer and painkiller. Only in the course the 1980s Afghanistan became a hub within the global drug supply chains. During the Soviet occupation heroin and opium were smuggled to finance the war against the invaders. After the occupation many Mujahidin groups fought for the control of the Trade routes and drugs, following the principle: Who controls the opium trade secures power for himself. 1999 the Taliban destroyed 90% of the poppy fields, artificially raising the market prices of the drug. Only years later after the fall of the Taliban the poppy production magically increased again. Between 2001 and 2007 the outcome rose from 185 tons to 8200 tons.

A global network


Of course, this increase of production is related to a raising international demand. With a huge info graphic, de Jong and Knoth visualize the complexity of the drug network. The underlying trade relations show in an exemplary way the linkages between conflict, informal economies and drug trade. Countries that historically played an important role in the Afghanistan-Conflict are still crucially linked to the network. Currently, with 21% Russia is the biggest customer of the Afghan heroin and 10% of the harvests are traded with East Africa (fighters from Somalia supported the Mujaheddin’s war against the Soviets).Uniquely, the art installation embodies the complexity of the drug network and underlines that a one-dimensional-approach to the ‘War on Drugs’ only aiming at arresting dealers and destroy poppy fields, cannot be successful. As a part of the global informal economy the drug trade developed historically and is interlinked to many other sectors. Too many pieces create the whole image, too much depends on the colourful, intoxicating flowers.


Saffron instead of opium!


Still, it is possible to open up alternatives for the small Afghan farmers – and the key is saffron. Saffron is the perfect substitute for poppy because its cultivation provides the same advantages for farmers: the flowers achieve high profit margins and require comparably low agricultural infrastructures.

That is why Conflictfood imports Afghan saffron – to uproot the poppy cultivation.

Help us to disarm the conflict economy in Afghanistan!

Read more about Afghanistan

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