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KABUL (Reuters) - Opium poppies are being grown this year in parts of Afghanistan where last year there were none, but overall cultivation of the drug will decrease slightly, the United Nations said in a report on Monday.
Four provinces in the east, west and north of Afghanistan that had been "poppy-free" have returned to cultivation, the U.N. drug agency UNODC said in its "Opium Winter Rapid Assessment" report, a forecast of trends for the year ahead.
But Helmand, a critical southern province where around half Afghanistan's poppy is grown, expects to see a slight decrease in the amount of farmland devoted to poppy this year, which will be enough to outweigh substantial increases elsewhere.
Opium prices in Afghanistan more than doubled last year after an unidentified blight cut production in half, the United Nations said, creating a "cash bonanza" for many farmers that encouraged cultivation.
Three quarters of the people surveyed cited the "high sales price of opium" as a driving force behind their decision to sow a crop this year. Between Feb 2010 and Feb 2011, dry opium prices tripled and fresh opium prices more than doubled.
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the UNODC in Afghanistan, credited Helmand governor Gulab Mangal with ensuring the lure of hefty prices did not push cultivation back up there.
Mangal has set up a "food zone program" with a carrot and stick approach to stopping poppy cultivation -- eradication of some crops combined with support for farmers who chose to grow alternatives like wheat.
"The political will shown by both the minister of counter narcotics and the governor of Helmand in tackling poppy cultivation, are exemplary for the country," Lemahieu said in a statement released by UNODC.
Afghanistan has long been the world's leading supplier of opium, and in recent years managed to produce thousands of tones more than the entire global demand for the drug.
Most of it is exported in a thriving world trade worth billions of dollars. Taliban-led militants are believed to derive $100-$400 million a year in revenues from production and trafficking of the drug, fuelling insecurity.
In the south this appears to be a two-way relationship with insecurity also fuelling poppy farming.
"In the south a direct correlation between insecurity, lack of agricultural aid and poppy cultivation could be established," the UNODC statement said.
"Some 90 percent of villages in the south with poor security are involved in poppy cultivation."
However in the north, the vast majority of poppy cultivating areas had better security.
The provinces where poppy is returning are eastern Kapisa, Ghor in the west and northern Baghlan and Faryab. Badakhshan, which borders Tajikistan, and Herat which borders Iran, both major trafficking routes, are also expected to see a "strong increase" in cultivation.
Six other provinces, including the capital Kabul, are expected to see a moderate increase.
"This latest survey is a prediction, a 'weather forecast', and that the exact situation of the poppy cultivation will only be known later in the year, once the estimation from satellite images are completed," said Lemahieu.
"This is only an indicator and government policy can stimulate further decline," he added.
Aside from leading the world in opium output, Afghanistan has become the biggest producer of hashish, or cannabis resin, turning out between 1,500 and 3,500 tones a year.
Editing by Jon Hemming