Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has slumped for the second year, according to a United Nations report released today, which warns that huge, hidden stashes of the illicit drug are a “ticking bomb” in the country responsible for producing almost all of the world’s opium.
Assigning credit for the 22 per cent drop in opium cultivation to more robust counter-narcotics operations by Afghan and NATO forces, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that 20 of the South Asian country’s 34 provinces are now poppy-free – a rise of two over last year. The number of hectares of land harvesting the crop has also fallen by 123,000.
“At a time of pessimism about the situation in Afghanistan, these results are a welcome piece of good news and demonstrate that progress is possible,” said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa.
The most dramatic turn-around was seen in Helmand province – one of Afghanistan’s most unstable areas – where cultivation declined by a third to less than 70,000 hectares thanks to strong leadership by the Governor, security forces mounting an aggressive anti-drugs offensive, favourable terms of trade for legal crops, and the successful introduction of food zones to promote lawful farming, Mr. Costa wrote in the report.
“Controlling drugs in Afghanistan will not solve all of the country’s problems, but the country’s problems can not be solved without controlling drugs,” he cautioned, adding that it “is too early to tell if the decrease in opium cultivation and production over the past two years is a market correction that could be reversed, or a downward trend.”
The 2009 Afghan Opium Survey noted that production of opium fell by 10 per cent – a less dramatic drop than poppy harvests because farmers are extracting more opium per bulb – and around 800,000 fewer people are involved in opium production compared with 2008.
Mr. Costa urged the Afghan authorities and the international community to stay the course by scaling up economic assistance in the war-ravaged country and strengthening counter-narcotics efforts.
Afghanistan produces large opium surpluses over the global demand, which remains stable at around 5,000 tons per year, and although prices have fallen, they have not yet crashed, suggesting that large amounts of opium are being withheld from the markets.
“Stockpiles of illicit opium now probably exceed 10,000 tons – enough to satisfy two years of world [heroin] addiction, or three years of medical [morphine] prescriptions,” stressed Mr. Costa. “Where is it? Who is hoarding it, and why? Intelligence agencies should defuse the ticking bomb of opium stockpiles before these become the source of potential sinister scenarios.”