Afghan opium farming stable despite efforts, UN says

Opium poppy cultivation remained stable in Afghanistan in 2010 after two years of declines, while rising prices suggested next year may cause a spike in the illicit crop, the UN said Thursday.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Opium poppy cultivation remained stable in Afghanistan in 2010 after two years of declines, while rising prices suggested next year may cause a spike in the illicit crop, the UN said Thursday.

Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, and the illegal trade of the multibillion-dollar crop has financed insurgent groups, fueled corruption and weakened the country’s government. The crop is concentrated in southern provinces that serve as Taliban strongholds.

The United States and its NATO allies have poured money into trying to stem opium production in Afghanistan as part of an effort to undercut funding for insurgent groups from trafficking. Western officials estimate insurgents receive about $100 million a year from Afghanistan’s narcotics trade.

In a summary of its annual Afghan Opium Survey, to be released in full later this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said about 304,000 acres (123,000 hectares) of the crop were planted this year, the same as in 2009. The previous two years had seen sharp declines in cultivation.

This year’s stable crop comes despite years of programs aimed at reducing the poppy crop, including subsidized seeds for other crops, vouchers for farmers, alternative job programs and incentives for provinces to become “poppy-free.” The United States alone spent $250 million on counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan in fiscal 2010, according to the U.S. Office of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

The multiyear effort has been hard to measure and many say the price of opium or the level of stockpiles is likely to have had more effect on farmer’s decisions than the development programs offered by international donors.

Actual opium production dropped 48 per cent to 3,600 metric tons, due largely to the spread of a disease that damaged poppy plants. The infection started to appear after spring flowering and hit the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar — major growing areas in southern Afghanistan — especially hard. The UNODC forecast at that time that production would likely be down 30 per cent this year because of the blight.

The disease is likely a factor in the rise in poppy prices. Following a steady decline between 2005 and 2009, the price of opium has shot up due to the decline in production from lower harvest yields, the survey found. While in 2009 the average farm-gate price of dry opium at harvest time was $64 per kilogram, it is now $169 per kilogram.

Higher opium prices could encourage farmers, especially those who stopped growing poppy plants, to reverse course, the U.N. said.

“It is worrying that the current high sale price of opium in combination with a lower wheat price may encourage farmers to go back to opium cultivation,” the survey said.

The typical poppy growing season in southern Afghanistan — the source of the bulk of the harvest — runs from December to May, so the impact of increased prices will only be known for certain when planting starts in the coming months.

“There’s not one single cash crop which can replace opium against those prices,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the top official for the UNODC in Afghanistan. But, he argued, if the government can actually provide security and services, that does reduce the incentive for Afghan farmers to plant opium to survive.

“Security and stability will take the main incentive away,” he said, arguing that people will trade the higher price for a lower one if it means getting a working government and security.

Yet the heart of Afghanistan’s opium economy is the volatile south, along with western provinces that are largely in the hands of insurgents and organized crime groups.

“Most of the districts in these regions are not accessible to the United Nations and non-governmental organizations,” UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov told reporters in Vienna, where the UNODC is based. “This mirrors the sharp polarization of the security situation in Afghanistan between the lawless south and the relatively stable north.”

Opium cultivation in Helmand province — the source of 53 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium — was stable or declined slightly. But any decrease was offset by a jump in cultivation in neighbouring Kandahar province, where Western officials working on counter-narcotics say the provincial government has not pushed anti-opium efforts. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized spokespeople.

Kandahar — the focus of a current surge in U.S. troops to rout Taliban insurgents from their southern stronghold — has also become increasingly volatile over the past year. Cultivation in Kandahar jumped 30 per cent to 63,839 (25,835 hectares).

“If there is not going to be security in Afghanistan across the entire country, we are not going to be able to eliminate this problem,” said Robert Watkins, the deputy U.N. envoy in Afghanistan.

The country’s northern region kept its poppy-free status and, countrywide, all 20 provinces that were poppy-free in 2009 stayed that way this year.

The agency also found that eradication of poppy fields was at its lowest level since the start of monitoring in 2005 and claimed 28 lives this year, seven more than in 2009.

Fedotov — a veteran Russian diplomat who took office as UNODC chief earlier this month — said a broader strategy was needed to support Afghan farmers and called on countries to curb domestic demand for illegal drugs.

“As long as demand drives this market, there will always be another farmer to replace one we convince to stop cultivating, and another trafficker to replace one we catch.”

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