Afghanistan: opium crop breaks record

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is expected to increase for a third straight year, expanding even to new areas of the country, a UN report warned April 15. The Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment 2013 found that the country is moving towards record levels of opium production this year despite eradication efforts by the international community and Afghan government. “The assessment suggests that poppy cultivation is not only expected to expand in areas where it already existed in 2012… but also in new areas or in areas where poppy cultivation was stopped,” the survey found. The study by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says insecurity and lack of agricultural assistance are fueling opium cultivation. “Villages with a low level of security and those which had not received agricultural assistance in the previous year were significantly more likely to grow poppy in 2013,” the report said.

Twelve provinces are likely to show an increase in opium cultivation, while three provinces—Balkh, Faryab and Takhar—are at risk of losing their poppy-free status if eradication of opium crops there is not quickly implemented, it said. But cultivation is mostly increasing in southern provinces where the Taliban are more active and thousands of international troops are set to withdraw this year. Afghanistan produces about 90% of the world’s opium and in 2012 the UNODC warned that opium cultivation in the country had increased by 18%. 

Last month, Afghanistan said it planned to destroy 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of opium fields this year. Poppy growers are taxed by Taliban militants who use the cash to help fund their insurgency, according to the UNODC. The trade also play a large part in the corruption that plagues Afghan life at every level from district to national government. (AFP, Reuters, April 15)

Three times as much opium was produced in Helmand last year as when British troops arrived to back up eradication efforts in 2006, and the new UN forecast says that this year’s crop will be even higher. British and American agricultural advisers have enouraged local farmers to plant cotton last year, but low prices have forced many to return to opium. Of the two large cotton ginning plants in Helmand, one lies idle, with acres of unsold cotton stored in a neighboring field.

Helmand’s governor, Mohammed Naeem, has launched an aggressive eradication program, with teams backed up by police troops burning crops in the field and smashing the wells that irrigate the land. But local district councillors have protested the eradication program, saying that without markets for other crops, it could impoverish farmers and drive them into the hands of the Taliban. (BBC News, April 15)