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Afghan opium trade soars to 'frightening' record levels, UN reports

Afghan opium trade soars to 'frightening' record levels, UN reports

Opium production in Afghanistan, a $3-billion-a-year trade accounting for more than 90 per cent of the world's illegal output, soared to frightening record levels this year, concentrated mainly in the strife-torn south where the ousted Taliban, which once banned poppy cultivation, now profits from the drugs trade, the United Nations reported today.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2007 Annual Opium Survey showed that the area under opium cultivation rose to 193,000 hectares from 165,000 in 2006, while the total opium harvest will soar by more than a third to 8,200 tonnes from 6,100 tonnes last year.

The amount of Afghan land used for growing opium is now larger than the combined total under coca cultivation in Latin America - Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. No other country has produced narcotics on such a deadly scale since China in the 19th century, the report said.

But the number of opium-free provinces in the centre and north of the country more than doubled from six to 13 compared to 2006, revealing an intensification of markedly divergent trends between the north and south.

“The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless,” UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said, calling for a more determined effort by the Afghan Government and the international community to combat the twin threats of drugs and insurgency by building upon promising developments in the north and reacting to the dismal failures in the south.

In the centre and north, where the Government has increased its authority and presence, cultivation is dropping. In Balkh province cultivation collapsed from 7,200 hectares last year to zero. By contrast, 80 per cent of opium poppies were grown in a handful of southern provinces on the border with Pakistan, where instability is greatest. In volatile Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is concentrated, cultivation rose 48 per cent to 102,770 hectares.

With a population of just 2.5 million, Helmand has single-handedly become the world's biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries - like Colombia (coca), Morocco (cannabis) and Myanmar (opium) - which have populations up to 20 times larger.

Poverty could not be used as an excuse for growing poppy, Mr. Costa said. Some of the most fertile regions in the south have become the opium-producing heartland while poorer provinces in the centre and north, where per capita income is half that of the south, are opium-free.

Rather poppy growing is closely linked to insecurity. “Opium cultivation is inversely related to the degree of Government control. Where anti-Government forces reign, poppies flourish,” he added, noting that the Taliban had reversed its religious edict of 2000 banning cultivation. “What used to be considered a sin is now being encouraged.”

But UNODC village surveys indicate that the main reason farmers choose not to grow poppies is that they consider it against Islam. “It would be an historic error to let Afghanistan collapse under the blows of drugs and insurgency,” Mr. Costa said. “Only 14 per cent of the population is involved in opium cultivation. The vast majority of Afghans want to turn their country away from drugs and crime. They deserve our support.”

He called for higher rewards for non-opium farmers to demonstrate that there are viable alternatives to illicit crops. “Assistance is plentiful but not being disbursed fast enough. I see a risk of some provinces sliding back to poppy cultivation,” he noted.

He also underlined the need for greater deterrents to dissuade farmers from planting opium, and an end to collusion that enables rich landlords from evading eradication. A no-opium pledge should be embedded in all development aid programmes. He urged the Government to get tough on corruption – the lubricant that oils the wheels of the drugs trade. “Short-term greed is undermining the long-term needs of Afghanistan,” he warned.

Building on experience in the north and centre, UNODC sees making half of the country's 34 provinces opium-free in 2008 as a plausible target.

Mr. Costa called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is seeking to restore stability in the country through the International Security Assistance Force, to more actively support counter-narcotics operations.

“Since drugs are funding insurgency, Afghanistan's military and its allies have a vested interest in destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets and bringing traffickers to justice. Tacit acceptance of opium trafficking is undermining stabilization efforts,” he said.