Efforts to curb Afghan opium crop fail this year - U.N.

KABUL (Reuters) - Efforts to persuade Afghanistan’s farmers to stop growing illegal opium have failed in the past year, the United Nations said on Wednesday, predicting as much land will be under poppy cultivation this year as in 2009.

Afghan men harvest opium in a poppy field in a village in the Golestan district of Farah province, May 5, 2009. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files

A U.N. report found that a trend of curbing cultivation -- which had seen land planted with poppies cut by more than a third from 2007-09 -- had come to a sudden end.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s illegal opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, an industry which Western countries say funds the insurgency against NATO troops and the Afghan government.

Over the past several years, the country has consistently managed to produce thousands of tonnes more than the entire global demand for the illegal drug, despite an international effort to stamp it out. Declines in cultivation in recent years had been hailed as progress.

But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) predicted in a preliminary report that it expects little or no change this year from the roughly 123,000 ha (304,000 acres) where opium was grown in 2009.

Most of the annual opium crop is planted before the winter and lies dormant underground this time of year, to be harvested in April or May. The report is based on surveys of farmers conducted late last year at the time of planting the 2010 crop.


“The message is clear: in order to further reduce the biggest source of the world’s deadliest drug, there must be better security, development and governance in Afghanistan,” said the head of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa.

“The Afghan authorities must lead and own their drug control strategy: the rest of the world has a vested interest in its success,” he said in a statement.

The report said the total amount of opium produced in Afghanistan may still fall because weather conditions are not as good as last year, when a bumper crop meant production overshot global demand despite a decline in cultivation from 2008.

Most of Afghanistan’s opium is grown in Helmand province, the most violent part of the country.

Some 10,000 U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand last year and seized most of the lower Helmand river valley before the planting season. Their commanders had hoped that their presence would reduce cultivation by providing more security so farmers could have access to food seed and get other crops to market.

Thousands more Marines have arrived in the province since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to the country in December, and are planning a massive assault on the last remaining large Taliban bastion in the province within days.

The report said restoring security to violent areas was the best way to combat drugs cultivation.

“There is a strong correlation between insurgency and cultivation. The UNODC assessment shows that almost 80 percent of villages with very poor security conditions grew poppy, while opium grows in only 7 percent of villages unaffected by violence,” the agency said in its statement.

Previous bumper harvests in Afghanistan have led to a huge global opium glut that has caused prices to fall, persuading some growers to shift to other crops in recent years.

But prices for food crops fell even faster than opium prices last year, meaning the economic case for abandoning opium was no longer as strong, the report found.