HE was a genial elderly man with long grey sideburns and beard. On his head he wore a rather comical looking bobble hat, making him look more like the cartoon image of Santa’s little helper than a cultivator and salesman of opium resin.

“This is only my first year, I’ve never grown poppy before,” Mahmoud Yusef assured me that day some years back, when we spoke in the languid afternoon heat of a picturesque valley in Afghanistan’s northern Takhar Province.

As we talked I watched as his weather-beaten fingers nimbly drew a wooden lancing tool across the skin of a poppy bulb, bringing a trickle of brown, sticky sap oozing out.

In a few days time, once dried, it would be scraped into buckets, ready to be sold for what is known as “farmgate” prices to a shadowy group of collectors.

In turn, it might remain raw opium or be processed into heroin using what are called precursor chemicals, like acetic anhydride and calcium carbonate.

All this would most likely take place at one of countless makeshift “laboratories” inside Afghanistan or neighbouring countries like Tajikistan, Pakistan or Iran.

From there, it would be baled and a chain of traffickers in places as far flung as Dushanbe, Istanbul, Karachi and Amsterdam would help the batches on their long, convoluted journeys. Some of this Afghanistan supply would doubtless ultimately find its way on to Scotland’s streets.

How much was Mahmoud, the first link in this supply chain, likely to earn from his first yield, I asked him? Instantly, the old man’s geniality fell away and he became cagey.

“I’m only a poor man, I don’t even own this land,” he insisted, before telling me that for up to five kilos of opium, he might expect to get paid 4000-5000 Afghanis, which back then, almost 10 years ago, was about £60.

“But believe me though when I tell you this,” Mahmoud quickly added. “I know that the greed of those who get rich from poppy will bring pain to the people of Afghanistan.”

On that point Mahmoud was certainly right. For opium and heroin does indeed bring pain to the people of Afghanistan and those far beyond. It also, of course, brings vast profits for those involved in the global trafficking business.

According to a newly released report, Afghanistan’s Taliban earned between $75 million and $95m last year taxing heroin produced from the country’s poppy fields as well as land and agricultural output.

But drug production and trafficking is currently only one of many top sources of income for organised crime syndicates and armed groups, according to a major new study by the international police agency, Interpol.

In what amounts to reckless exploitation of the environment, everything from ivory trafficking, charcoal production, antiquities smuggling, illegal gold and coltan mining and “taxes” on other natural resources now make up a staggering 38% of the funding to all conflict and armed groups.

Interpol’s report, The World Atlas of Illicit Flows, compiled with the Norwegian risk analysis centre RHIPTO and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, is billed as the first global overview of trafficking routes used by such groups. It makes for staggering reading.

Of the $31.5 billion in illicit flows generated annually in conflict areas, 96% goes to organised criminal groups, with this money helping to fuel violent conflict around the world. Based on public reports and criminal intelligence, the report identifies more than 1000 routes used for smuggling and other illicit transactions.

“The huge volume of illicit money being generated through the exploitation of natural resources is of great concern,” says Jurgen Stock, Interpol’s Secretary General.

“Criminal networks and their activities fuel violent conflict which, in turn, undermines the rule of law.”

After “environmental crimes” though, drug trafficking still remains the second biggest source of funding, accounting for 28% of the total.

A few years ago, while in the Afghan capital Kabul, I was to see for myself the impact this illicit flow was having, as well as the efforts made to combat it.

It was in Kabul that I met one former smuggler called Rahim, who like many Afghan villagers found himself working for the Taliban in order to make some money.

“There was a group of us from our village, the Taliban regularly paid us about $250 and we carried many kilo bags of pure heroin over the border into Iran,” admitted Rahim.

On the world’s streets that single kilo bag would have been worth an astronomical sum. As ever any profits would go straight back into the Taliban’s fighting fund.

Given this massive financial resource, the daunting task of staunching this flow of heroin has taken on top priority for law enforcement agencies.

For years at the foot of some mountains adjacent to Kabul’s international airport sat a well-guarded compound and hi-tech listening station that is home to the most elite of these agencies, an Afghan counter-narcotics commando team trained by members of the US Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) and former special forces soldiers.

Known as the National Interdiction Unit or NIU, they are seen as Afghanistan’s “untouchables” in the battle against the illegal heroin trade.

DAVE Lopez, who for many years was the US command adviser to the NIU, knows all about battling the entrenched corruption of the world’s narco states.

A former US special forces soldier with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, he joined the US army’s counter-narcotics unit and took part in operations in places like Colombia and Iraq before coming to Afghanistan.

“The NIU has actively arrested officials in the police force and are prepared to take it as far as the rule of law in Afghanistan will allow, even if it does go to the top,” Lopez once told me during some time I spent with the NIU.

He was also in no doubt that the Taliban are adept at using the trafficking trade in a way that has delivered massive financial and strategic gains for them.

“Once the Taliban realised that narcotic control was a major goal of the international coalition and Afghan government, they OK’d it to the farmers to grow poppy because they know it destabilises the government,” Lopez explained.

Outside, as we talked, local Afghan NIU commandos wandered the compound, all masked while operational for fear of being identified and their families targeted.

Over the years, as the war in Afghanistan has intensified, many accounts have surfaced in the country’s northern provinces like Badakhshan of how Russian mafia gangsters have been buying heroin which they then pay for directly in arms to Taliban officials at remote bazaars in the region. All of this has given rise to Afghanistan’s reputation as something of a “clearing house” in the arms-for-drugs trade and a prime example of co-ordination between organised crime and armed militants.

But Afghanistan is far from the only place where such corrosive criminal alliances and illegal trafficking exists..

“It has become a global phenomenon, represented in a confluence of conflicts from Africa to the Middle East and the Americas, and showing a distinct linkage to the response to international terrorism,” asserts Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

At the heart of this illicit trade lies the exploitation of not only opium, but other natural and environmental resources, such as gold, minerals, diamonds, timber, oil, charcoal and wildlife.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is both blessed and cursed by being one of the most resource-rich countries on the planet. Within its borders lie major deposits of gold, tin, cobalt, copper and that key component of modern life – coltan.

Short for columbite-tantalite, coltan is an ore from which niobium and tantalum are extracted. With tantalum being a crucial component for the world’s electronic industry it has contributed hugely to the miniaturisation of handheld electronic devices. In other words, all those mobile phones and PlayStation consoles we all use need such components in order to work.

Coltan is often mined open cast and by hand in DRC, with some mines run by armed militias. While global regulatory authorities do what they can to ensure that electronics companies are not funding conflict in the DRC by buying coltan, the path this mineral takes out of the country on to the commercial marketplace remains hard to trace.

So huge are the profits that rival militias fight over territory rich in coltan, just as they do with DRC’s illegal gold mines. On numerous visits to the country I’ve met many civilians uprooted by such fighting.

I’ve witnessed, too, Congolese children wading waist deep in water, torches taped to their foreheads or held between their teeth as they enter the darkness of extremely old and dangerous illegal gold mines.

THERE for hours every day in the inky blackness they dig and pan for the precious metal, much of which ends up funding the predatory gunmen that only in turn make the lives of ordinary people more precarious.

“When our mining company first arrived with their drill rigs they rolled through the town and it was empty because all the locals thought the trucks and rigs were tanks, so they cleared out,” one bush pilot working for a legitimate South African consortium told me once in Mongbwalu, a gold-rich region in DRC’s Ituri Province.

For years up until then local militias from various tribes had been acting as the proxy forces of neighbouring countries like Uganda and Rwanda in the struggle for gold inside DRC.

In doing so they caused hardship and suffering not only to human beings. Coltan mining has also resulted in significant destruction of wildlife habitats.

The number of eastern lowland gorillas in DRC has declined by 90% over the past five years, as their habitats have been reduced as forests are cleared to make way for mining operations.

Elsewhere in Africa at least three major transnational crime cartels are also currently trafficking elephant tusks out of the continent, with as many as 40,000 elephants dying each year from illegal poaching orchestrated by large criminal organisations. Very little is ignored when it comes to making a profit.

Somalia is another country I’ve visited over the years and which has had more than its fair share of bogeymen. Battered by dictatorship and warlordism, it is now the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab that poses the biggest threat and is turning a buck at the environment’s expense.

On the roads in and out of the capital Mogadishu, stockpiles of charcoal cast long shadows from the scorching sun and charcoal producers and traders can be seen packing their trucks near the city.

Here, in this already arid landscape, some two million trees are felled every year in a charcoal trade worth $120m.

Among the major buyers are countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, but of that $120m, at least $10m is siphoned off by al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group currently fighting Somalia’s government.

With an estimated loss of 8.2 million trees between 2011 and last year, the country also experiences periodic drought and flooding due to climate change and concerns grow that it is being slowly reduced to desert.

“Without environment there is no life,” was how one Somali charcoal trader who now supports a ban summed up the urgency of the situation recently.

For those criminal cartels, many of which are now inextricably linked to armed groups and political elites, such appeals mean nothing.

In a world of finite and diminishing resources, their rampage across the globe for profit poses a threat to us all. The old Afghan opium farmer Mahmoud Yusef was right when he said that those who get rich from such things bring pain to the people.

Preventing such profiteers from inflicting more of that pain is without doubt one of the biggest challenges of our times.