23 November 2007
By: Dorian L Jones
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, this year opium
production in Afghanistan has soared to a “record level.” Despite
intense efforts to curtail its production by the Afghan government,
backed by NATO forces, the country remains the world’s biggest producer
of illegal opium, much of which ends up on European streets as heroin.
Thirty years ago, Turkey also was accused of being a world center of
illegal opium production. But today, under strict government control,
the country cultivates half the world’s legally grown opium.
The province of Afyon (a name derived from the Turkish for “opium”) in
western Turkey has for 3,000 years been the center of the country’s
opium cultivation. Ancient Hittite coins bearing the opium poppy have
even been discovered.
Traveling throughout the region during harvest time, the distinctive
pink and white opium poppies can be seen everywhere. Opium is harvested
twice a year, July and November.
In fields outside the town of Bolvadin, Mohammed Dogan a white-haired,
80-year-old man with deeply tanned skin, has been growing opium poppies
since he was 10 years old.
“It is product that we cannot give up; it is part of our life. My
father, my grandfather and his grandfather have all grown the opium
poppy. I started as a child. I grew up in the opium fields; it is part
of my blood. We use the poppies in our food, the oil to cook our food,
even our cattle eat the stems – that’s why our milk taste so good. Opium
is a part of who we are,” Mohammed Dogan told ISN Security Watch.
Dogan is joined by government inspector Ilyas Mert, one of the officials
responsible for the administration, control, buying and processing of
Turkey’s opium cultivation. Every year, 70,000 hectares are annually
distributed to farmers by the Toprak Mahsuller Ofis (Turkish Grain Board).
Mert, too, is a veteran in the field, having worked for three decades in
the control of opium production. He carefully checks with his assistants
that Dogan is only growing opium within his state-allocated land. Mert
also ensures that none of the opium buds have been cut and opium paste
extracted – a tell-tale sign of illegal production.
Careful calculations are made as to how much opium Dogan’s fields will
yield. Any discrepancy with what is actually delivered results in an
investigation. The inspection is one of many carried out by government
officials and gendarmes.
“Anyone caught breaking the rules has his whole family banned [from
opium cultivation] for life, and anyone involved in the heroin trade
faces a minimum of 20 years imprisonment.
“But the key to this success is working with the local people; all our
inspections are with Muhtars [respected elder members of the community]
who know the area. This is crucial. Everyone realizes that opium
production can only succeed if there is no leakage. Trust is crucial,”
Mert told ISN Security Watch.
Winning that trust both at home and abroad has been a long battle for
Turkey. In 1971, Washington accused Ankara of having relaxed controls
and claimed that 80 percent of heroin on US streets came from Turkey.
Under intense pressure, the then-Turkish government took the draconian
step of banning all opium production – a move that affected nearly a
“It was very hard for the people here, it was a terrible time. We lost
not only income, but our culture, our cuisine, everything depended on
it. […] We never want to go back to those times. That’s why we all work
together to make this work. Of course, every farmer we would like to
grow more but why would I risk me and my family being banned for life,
everyone understands we have to work together,” Dogan’s brother, Ali,
told ISN Security Watch.
After intense pressure from people like the Dogan brothers, which
culminated in widespread protests, the ban was lifted in 1974. Along
with new stringent controls, a radical method of processing poppy was
A short drive from the Dogan brothers’ field is the world’s biggest
opium factory. Every year, 22,000 tonnes of opium poppies are processed,
to be used in medical products like morphine and codeine. Strict
security surrounds the plant, including armed security guards, barbed
wire fences and state-of-the-art close-circuit cameras.
The factory is divided into three sectors, with security increasing at
each level. To enter the area where the opium is extracted from the buds
and stored, special permission is required from Ali Gevenkiris, head of
opium production in Turkey. He says security is paramount and stringent
controls are made to ensure no leakage.
“Turkey is an example of where we successfully combine strict controls
and very harsh penalties along with working with the people. It works,”
Gevenkiris told ISN Security Watch.
Key to those controls is the special process used to extract opium from
the husks of the buds. This renders redundant the traditional way of
relying on farmers to extract opium by cutting the bud and collecting
the released white paste. Such cut buds are easily spotted in opium fields.
“The stringent controls, along with this special process make it almost
impossible to cultivate opium illegally,” Gevenkiris said.
Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the opium factory processes
around half the world’s legally cultivated opium poppies, producing on
average 80 tonnes of opium.
Through the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, every year
Turkey is allocated a quota along with six other main producers (Spain,
France, Hungary, Australia and India). Gevenkiris says they could
extract more opium from fewer buds, but they have other priorities.
“In Turkey, like India, the priority is allowing as many farmers to
cultivate opium. In Europe and Australia, opium is produced by large
companies, which have developed concentrated opium poppies and extract
far more opium than we do. If we did this it would mean far fewer
farmers growing opium, and our aim is not profit but the farmers.”
A model for Afghanistan?
Such is the success of the Turkish program that some working in
anti-narcotics have suggested it as a model for Afghanistan.
The Senlis Council, an international think tank specializing in security
and policy issues, wrote in a recent recent report, referred to in the
British daily Globe and Mail, that “the poppies are needed and, if
properly regulated, could provide a legal source of income to
impoverished Afghan farmers, while at the same time depriving the drug
lords and the Taliban of much of their income.”
But Gevenkiris is unconvinced, warning that such a move could lead to a
collapse in the legal opium market.
“The world produces 400 tonnes a year of legal opium, 50 more than the
demand. This year, it is estimated that Afghanistan on its own will
produce illegally 600 tonnes. If production is legalized in Afghanistan
the world market will be flooded with opium, which would cause a
collapse in prices,” he said.
Still, Gevenkiris says Turkey “is supporting UN efforts to find secure
ways of distributing medical morphine to the developing world […] to
solve this problem you need a global strategy.”
Talk of global strategies and Afghanistan are a world away for farmers
like the Dogan brothers, who are looking forward to harvest time.
Mohammed Dogan admits that in the past they used to earn more when there
were fewer controls, but conceded that it was a small price to pay for
the certainty of being allowed to continue to cultivate opium poppies.
“Every morning when I see these beautiful fields of opium flowers, all
my stress disappears and I feel such happiness. It is not only about
money, it is emotionally so important; I cannot survive without seeing
For the Turkish state there is also a trade off. The stringent controls
are expensive, costing the government around US$6 million annually,
which is a lot considering the country only earns US$30 million from
In fact, year on year, Turkish opium production only breaks even. But
with nearly one million people dependent on opium cultivation, not only
for cash but also for their cultural identity, most in Turkey seem to
think it is money well spent.
Dorian L Jones is an Istanbul-based correspondent reporting for ISN
Security Watch. He has covered events in Northern Iraq, Turkey and
Cyprus. He is also a radio documentary producer.