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Record Afghan opium crop is massive source of corruption, UN report warns

Record Afghan opium crop is massive source of corruption, UN report warns

Efforts to combat opium production in Afghanistan, a $3-billion-a-year trade accounting for more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegal output, have been marred by high-level corruption, with this year registering a record increase of some 50 per cent, according to a United Nations report released today.

“Let’s be clear. We are talking about links between the industry and the Government, potentially the Parliament and other official institutions,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Christopher Alexander told a news conference in launching the report in Kabul, the capital.

“We are not here talking about an abstract or fictional Government – we are talking about this Government. And it will be important for this Government to recognize that fact and to energetically address it,” he said of the report compiled by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Bank.

Without progress on the opium front it will be “extremely difficult” to tackle the other two challenges facing the country, fighting violence, insurgency and terrorism, and building state institutions and improving governance, Mr. Alexander stressed.

The seven-chapter report – Afghanistan's Drug Industry: Structure, Functioning, Dynamics, and Implications for Counter-Narcotics Policy – cites the opium economy as “a massive source of corruption” and the country's largest source of export earnings.

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, in a statement called for quick concrete results, for example by doubling the number of opium-free provinces from the current six in 2007.

“I therefore propose that development support to farmers, the arrest of corrupt officials and eradication measures be concentrated in half a dozen provinces with low cultivation in 2006 so as to free them from the scourge of opium. Those driving the drug industry must be brought to justice and officials who support it sacked,” he said.

The report says that, far from leading to sustained declines in total national cultivation, success in reducing cultivation in one province often leads to increases elsewhere, or cultivation in the province itself rebounds in the following year, as occurred in Helmand province after 2003.

Eradication campaigns affect poor farmers and rural wage labourers mostly since they lack political support and are unable to pay bribes, while wealthier producers pay to avoid having their crops eradicated, greatly reducing the effectiveness of counter-narcotics measures and gravely undermining the credibility of the government and its local representatives.

This year’s harvest reached an all-time high with total cultivation increasing by 59 per cent and production by 49 per cent, with the bulk concentrated in Helmand and a few other highly insecure and insurgency-ridden provinces. Yet, even in this record year, opium takes up less than 4 per cent of total cultivated area, with 13 per cent of the population involved. The opium economy accounts for around one-third of total economic activity.

Developing alternative livelihoods takes time, and expectations of what can be achieved in the short term need to be realistic, the report notes, arguing that there is a strong case for focusing initially on interdiction efforts against drug traffickers and their sponsors.

UNODC Country Representative and report co-editor Doris Buddenberg told the Kabul news conference that the countries where there is the highest demand for opium are Iran and Pakistan. Europe runs third with Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom as the main consuming countries. Demand is also rising in Eastern Europe and particularly Russia.

She said the issue of high-ranking officials involved in the drugs trade was “one of the most difficult aspects,” noting organizations both inside and outside of the UN believe that not enough has been done to deal with it.