KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and United Nations officials say a natural pest has hit the key narcotics producing region of southern Afghanistan, which could result in a major reduction of poppy output, the raw material for heroin, this year.
Controlling the opium trade in Afghanistan, the world’s leading producer of the drug, is part of the fight by the West and the Afghan government against Taliban militants, overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Following are questions and answers about Afghanistan’s poppy production, its role in the insurgency and efforts to combat it.
Despite a reduction over the last two years, Afghanistan last year produced 90 percent of the world’s opium, a thick paste made of poppy and then turned into heroin, according to U.N. figures.
In 2009, 123,000 hectares of opium were cultivated in the country, compared to 157,000 in 2008.
The 6,900 metric tons of opium it produced last year is far more than the 5,000 metric tons the world’s addicts consume, leading to a glut that has depressed prices to lows unseen since the 1990s.
Helmand cultivated 69,833 hectares in 2009, but Afghan officials say Kandahar this year has replaced it as the major drugs producing province of Afghanistan.
Drug mafias have built up stockpiles in the region, an Afghan official last week said.
The fall in price drove the value of Afghanistan’s opium crop down to 40 percent to $438 million last year. Opium was said to be worth four percent of Afghan GDP in 2009, compared to seven percent in the previous year.
Its street value fell to $3.4 billion in 2008 from $4 billion in 2007, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2008 Afghan Opium Survey. Most of Afghanistan’s drugs end up in European streets, but the country itself has 1.5 million addicts.
The Taliban received about $150 million in funding from the opium trade last year, according to Jean-Luc Lemahieu, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head in Afghanistan.
The Taliban receives funds from both farmers and from drug traffickers who smuggle opium across Afghanistan’s numerous borders, including Iran.
Tackling the opium problem has been a big part of the new counter-insurgency strategy by Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. general leading NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Some 23,000 U.S.-led foreign troops plan in June to launch the biggest offensive yet against the Taliban in southern Kandahar, which officials say has replaced adjacent Helmand as the epicenter of the world’s opium growing industry.
McChrystal and other commanders say their new anti-insurgent strategy is designed to win hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans and they do not want to force farmers to stop opium cultivation or destroy their fields.
In Marjah, the scene of a large NATO-led offensive in February, U.S. marines gave cash to farmers to destroy their crops.
To eradicate opium, farmers need to be able to replace it with other crops. But opium has two advantages over traditional crops once harvested - it can often be more profitable and it does not rot after harvest, unlike other crops such as grapes.
In 2007, the gross income ratio for farmers from opium to wheat was 10:1. In 2008, that narrowed to 3:1, although that was partly due to drought.
Eradication is also costly and dangerous. At least 78 people involved in eradication, most of them policemen, were killed in 2008, a 75 percent increase on 2007, according to the
More people have lost their lives in the campaign in 2009 and so far this year, according to Afghan officials.
Supporters of poppy eradication say it is only a small part of a wider counter-narcotics policy and is only carried out on targeted areas where farmers have access to alternative crops.
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Megan Goldin