How they count Afghanistan's poppies.

How they count Afghanistan's poppies.

How they count Afghanistan's poppies.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 19 2004 5:49 PM

Counting Poppies in Afghanistan

How the United Nations did it.

A new U.N. report claims that Afghan opium production skyrocketed over the past year. The area of the country planted with Papaver somniferum—the poppy that secretes opium as a milky-white goo—rose 64 percent, to 323,701 acres. The crop yielded 4,200 tons of opium, just shy of the record of 4,600 tons set in 1999. Since drug lords are understandably cagey about their operations, how did the United Nations obtain those figures?

In part by analyzing satellite imagery, and in part—as dicey as it sounds—by sending surveyors out to interview villagers in opium-rich areas. High-resolution images from two satellites, Ikonos-2 and SPOT 5, were studied for evidence of poppy cultivation. The Ikonos photos covered the 10 Afghan provinces that grew approximately 90 percent of the nation's Papaver somniferum in 2003. In each province, Ikonos took two images of several 100-square-kilometer plots—one before the annual harvest and one afterward. This was done to ensure that wheat fields were not mistaken for poppy fields. The analysts then extrapolated countrywide figures from these samples.

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The lower-resolution SPOT 5 images, meanwhile, covered only the province of Nangarhar. But because the satellite's photos are more affordable than those of Ikonos, it was able to capture images of the entire province. The estimated poppy coverage found in the SPOT 5 images was then compared to the estimate extrapolated from the Ikonos sample of the province. The two sets of images led to estimates that were within 7 percent of each other, a gap which is considered almost negligible in this type of analysis.

By far the most difficult part of the poppy-counting process, of course, was sending surveyors into the dangerous Afghan countryside. The United Nations chose 60 surveyors, based on their local knowledge and their physical fitness. Engineers and those with agricultural experience were preferred. The U.N. report notes, with considerable understatement, that "security generally proved to be problematic for the surveyors," some of whom were greeted with death threats. (All of the surveyors lived to tell the tale.)

Nevertheless, the field researchers managed to survey nearly 2,500 villages, where they pressed the locals on such questions as how many families were growing poppies, when the harvest was scheduled, how much opium the poppies were expected to yield, and how much opium was selling for. The surveyors were only able to reach villages in 31 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces; Paktika province, in the southeast, was considered too dangerous for anyone doing the United Nations' bidding.

The information collected by the surveyors was used to flesh out the poppy cultivation picture in regions where satellite images were not available. The surveyors were also integral in helping estimate exactly how much raw opium the year's harvest would yield. They randomly selected small plots within fields and measured the dimensions of the poppy capsules as well as the density of growth. The report's authors concluded that bad weather and disease translated into a relatively low yield, given the extent of the poppy cultivation; this year's Afghan opium production is just 17 percent above last year's figure.

Still, as production has faded in Southeast Asia's "Golden Triangle," Afghanistan has become the world's dominant opium supplier. The U.N. report concludes that 87 percent of the world's opium comes from Afghanistan and that opium accounts for roughly 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product.