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U.N.: Opium cultivation drops in Afghanistan

Image: Poppy field in Afghanistan
An Afghan man collects resin from poppies in an opium poppy field in Panjwai district of Kandahar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan in May. Afghanistan supplies some 93 percent of the world's opium used to make heroin, the United Nations estimates. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Drought and anti-drug campaigns helped slash Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation by 19 percent this year compared to 2007, but Taliban militants could still derive up to $70 million from the harvest, the U.N. anti-drug chief said Tuesday.

The country is still far and away the world's leading source of the heroin-producing crop, a new U.N. report said.

Successful anti-poppy campaigns in the country's north and east were mainly to thank for the drop in production. But fields in the south — where the Taliban insurgency is strongest — remain awash in poppies that provide the main ingredient for heroin, according to the U.N.'s Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008 released Tuesday.

And because of a rise in yield, opium production this year will fall only 6 percent compared with last year's record haul and the Taliban stand to again earn tens of millions of dollars from the drug trade.

Militants to earn millions off drug trade
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said perhaps most alarming is that he expects the Taliban and other militants to derive between $50 million and $70 million" from Afghanistan's opium and heroin trade produced based on this year's harvest.

Costa said there is no longer an Afghan poppy problem but rather a problem with the country's southern provinces, where the insurgency is strongest. He said there is such a clear link between Taliban insurgents and drug production that fighting both movements "is a complementary process."

Some 98 percent of the country's poppies were concentrated in seven southern provinces, "where there are permanent Taliban settlements, and where organized crime groups profit from the instability," the U.N. report said.

Costa estimated that the Taliban would derive up to 10 percent of the $732 million poppy harvest, and that traffickers — some tied to the insurgency — would make another $200 million moving the drug haul to the world's streets.

Still, the U.N. and other drug officials said this year's drop in cultivation are reason for cautious optimism.

"The news is relatively good," Costa told a news conference in Kabul. "The direction of change is right."

Acreage under cultivation drops
Last year opium farmers cultivated 476,903 acres; this year they cultivated 388,000 acres, the report said.

Helmand province — the country's most violent region — accounted for some 66 percent of the crop by itself. Farmers there cultivated 254,513 acres, up 1 percent from last year. If Helmand province alone were a country, it would be the world's largest producer of opium.

The number of opium-free provinces rose from 13 to 18 after extensive anti-drug efforts in the north and east. Anti-drug officials were particularly proud that Nangarhar — last year's second highest-producing opium province — was free of the drug this year.

"This is a remarkable accomplishment, the first time it happens in the country's modern history," the report said.

Costa warned it would take continued efforts — and aid money — to keep the 18 provinces poppy free.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood credited the fall in production to the work of provincial governors who helped eliminate poppies from their regions.

"More than half of Afghanistan provinces are now poppy free," Wood said in a statement. "The gains in the north and east show that counternarcotics efforts can succeed."

The UNODC said the country's anti-poppy successes could be attributed to good local governance and drought, which hurt poppy growth in the north and east.

Better justice system needed
The U.N. also warned that the government could not let cannabis — the precursor to marijuana that is growing in popularity here among farmers — replace opium. It said the country needs a better justice system to prosecute traffickers, landowners and corrupt government officials who turn a blind eye to the drug trade.

"Until they all face the full force of the law, the opium economy will continue to prosper with impunity, and the Taliban will continue to profit from it," the UNODC said.

It also said the world has a surplus of opium hidden in storage.

The price of fresh opium at harvest dropped 20 percent, from $86 per kilogram to $70, the UNODC said. The value at harvest of all of Afghanistan's opium crop dropped from $1 billion in 2007 to $732 million this year. The overall value of the crop rises two to four times once it hits the streets from Iran and Pakistan to Europe.

Potential opium production from this year's crop is 8,487 tons, down from 9,038 tons in 2007.

Eradication — where Afghan anti-drug police slash opium crops — dropped to 13,590 acres this year. Afghan officials eradicated 46,949 acres last year.