UN: Afghan opium bumper crop

Opium production in Afghanistan has hit a record $3 billion this year, accounting for more than 90% of the world’s illegal output, according to a new report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Production is concentrated mainly in the strife-torn south of the country, where the Taliban—who banned poppy cultivation when they were in power—now profit from the trade, the report alleges. The reports says the area under opium cultivation rose to 193,000 hectares from 165,000 in 2006, while the harvest soared by more than a third to 8,200 tons from 6,100 tons. The amount of Afghan land used for growing opium was larger than the total under coca cultivation in Latin America, the report says.

The report also found that the number of opium-free provinces in the centre and north of the country more than doubled from six to 13, revealing an intensification of markedly divergent trends between the north and south.

In the centre and north, where the government has increased its authority and presence, cultivation is dropping. In Balkh province cultivation collapsed from 7,200 hectares last year to zero. By contrast, 80% of opium poppies were grown in a handful of southern provinces along the border with Pakistan.

In Helmand, cultivation rose by 48% to 102,770 hectares. With a population of 2.5 million, Helmand has become the world’s biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries like Colombia (coca), Morocco (hashish) and Burma (opium).

UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa called for a more determined effort by the Afghan government and the international community to combat the threats of drugs and insurgency. “Opium cultivation is inversely related to the degree of government control,” he said. “Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish.” Noting that the Taliban have reversed their 2000 edict banning cultivation, he added, “What used to be considered a sin is now being encouraged.” (Dawn, Pakistan, Aug. 27)

See our last posts on Afghanistan and the opium war.

  1. Afghanistan: US accused in more civilian deaths
    From the New York Times, Aug. 27:

    Afghan Elders and U.S. Differ on Who Killed 12 Civilians
    KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 26 — Afghan elders said Sunday that airstrikes had killed 12 civilians in the southern province of Helmand on Saturday night, but an American military spokesman blamed Taliban militants for the civilian deaths.

    Exactly what occurred in the remote area was unclear, with local elders and American military officials giving conflicting accounts. But the charges and countercharges reflected growing tensions in Afghanistan over civilian deaths.

    Hajji Agha Muhammad, an Afghan elder, said airstrikes had killed 12 civilians and wounded 12 others in Kobar, a village in the volatile Musa Qala district, on Saturday night. Mr. Muhammad said the dead included six children ages 3 to 6 and two women.

    An increasingly familiar circumstance.

  2. Media manipulation on opium cultivation figures
    Peter Gorman writes on his blog Aug. 29:

    An August 27 report released by the United Nations claims that Afghanistan’s opium production has again reached record levels, despite $600 million contributed by the US to stem the farming of the poppy crop in that country. Moreover, the Taliban, once the scourge of poppy growers in Afghanistan, are said to now be protecting the crops as a means of raising funds for their continued insurgency. Ironically, the US once promoted opium production by the tribal leaders and warlords in Afghanistan’s north as a means of raising funds to continue their insurgency against the USSR takeover of that country.

    One report on UN’s report particularly caught my eye. It was the Aug. 28 New York Times story, in which the reporter noted that Afghanistan still “produces more [opium] than Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined.”

    In the very next sentence the reporter notes that Afghanistan “accounts for for 93 percent of the world’s opium…”

    Hmmmm. Given that Mynamar (née Burma), Mexico, Pakistan, China and India, also produce commercial quantities of opium, how much of the 7 percent of the opium not produced by Afghanistan might be produced in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia? One percent of the world share each? Less? Okay, if that’s the math, then how on earth can it be said that Afghanistan produces more than Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. That’s not more, it’s at least 93 times more than any of those three countries.

    So why put that in there if it’s such a ridiculous comment to make?

    Well, and here’s the political lesson: It was put into the Times story to keep the Andean countries involved in Plan Colombia and the Andean Initiative on the tip of the tongue right next to the words opium production, from which heroin derives. To keep Plan Colombia and the Andean Initiative coca-plant eradication money rolling in. No matter that coca and opium are worlds apart. No matter that the story makes it clear that those three countries produce only an infinitesimal amount of opium. That’s a detail most readers miss. What was important was to get those countries named in a story about hard drugs and by extension, terrorism.

    And the NY Times fell for it. Infuckingcredible. Way to bend over and take one for the Feds, Gray Lady.

    Did Gorman shame the Times into correcting an error? The story by David Rohde in the Aug. 28 print edition states clearly: “…the amount of land in Afghanistan used for opium production is now larger than the amount of land used for coca cultivation in all Latin America.” But a Google News search for the offending text (sans clarifying reference to coca) indicates that it appears (verbatim) in the Detroit Free Press. Strangely, Rohde’s piece also shows up on the Google search—yet the reference to the Andean nations does not appear in the actual text. This indicates the text was there when the Google-bots first crawled it, but has since been removed. The Free Press presumably picked it up from the Times before it was removed. The version of Rohde’s piece in the International Herald Tribune states (correctly) that “Afghanistan still produces more narcotics than Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined.” (Emphasis added.)

    So are the folks at Times (whose garbled Mexico coverage we recently had to call out) reading Peter Gorman’s blog? We didn’t think they were that smart!

  3. Afghan farmers ditch opium —for cannabis
    Progress, of a sort. From the New York Times, Nov. 4:

    Cannabis Thrives in an Afghan Province
    KHWAJA GHOLAK, Afghanistan — Amid the multiplying frustrations of the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan, the northern province of Balkh has been hailed as a rare and glowing success.

    wo years ago the province, which abuts Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, was covered with opium poppies — about 27,000 acres of them, nearly enough to blanket Manhattan twice. This year, after an intense anti-poppy campaign led by the governor, Balkh’s farmers abandoned the crop. The province was declared poppy free, with 12 others, and the provincial government was promised a reward of millions of dollars in development aid.

    But largely ignored in the celebration was the fact that many farmers in Balkh simply switched from opium poppies to another illegal crop: cannabis, the herb from which marijuana and hashish are derived.

    As the Afghan and Western governments focused on the problem of soaring Afghan opium production, which hit record levels this year and remains a booming industry, cannabis cultivation increased 40 percent around the country, to about 173,000 acres this year — from about 123,500 acres last year, the United Nations said in an August report. And even though hashish is less expensive per weight than opium or heroin, the report said, cannabis can potentially earn a farmer more than opium poppies because it yields twice the quantity of drug per acre and is cheaper and less labor intensive to grow.

    “As a consequence,” the United Nations report warned, “farmers who do not cultivate opium poppy may turn to cannabis cultivation.”

    Many farmers in Balkh have done just that, officials and residents say, and the province now has one of the most bounteous cannabis crops in the country.

    The plant is certainly not hard to find. It lines the main highways leading into Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital, and is visible to passing drivers. The crop’s chief byproduct, hashish, is sold openly at many roadside fruit and grocery stands, particularly around Balkh, the ancient citadel town about 15 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

    Late on an October afternoon, Muhammad Ayud, 30, a kindly sharecropper, was finishing a day of work at the three-acre parcel he farms here in this poor village just outside the town of Balkh. His plot was covered by a forest of cannabis plants, some more than nine feet tall.

    “This is nothing,” he said, gesturing toward the towering plants. “If you give it real fertilizer, you’d see how tall it grows!”

    Last year Mr. Ayud’s parcel was mostly opium poppies. But his crop was wiped out by government officials during a campaign led by the provincial governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, who jailed dozens of growers for disobeying him and personally waded into several poppy fields swinging a stick at the flower stems…

    This year he planted cannabis instead, with some cotton as a fallback in case the government followed through on its promises to eradicate the illicit crop. It was a return to a family tradition, he said. His father and grandfather grew cannabis here.

    Mr. Ayud said he knew it was illegal to grow cannabis, but that it was the only crop that would produce enough profit to feed his family. “I don’t have anything else to grow,” he said. The difference in potential earnings is vast: cannabis can earn about twice the profits of a legal crop like cotton, local officials say.

    Farmers in this region have cultivated cannabis for more than 70 years and, by the estimates of several Balkh residents, at least half the adult male population smokes hashish.

    70 years? Probably more like 7,000…

    Resinous, pungent and black, the hashish is sold in thin, palm-size sheets that resemble large tire patches and sell for about a dollar each. Hashish from this area — called Shirak-i-Mazar, or Milk of Mazar — was once prized by smokers around the world, though its primacy has since been supplanted by varieties from other countries.

    Many farmers here, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, process the cannabis into hashish in their homes, then sell it to traffickers who come to their doors to pick it up. The best hashish is exported, residents here say, while the inferior stuff is consumed nationally…

    Neo-colonialism at work. Just like the poor drink Nescafé in coffee-producing Central America…

    Mr. Atta said he was still waiting for the development money that the central government and international community had promised Balkh in return for ridding itself of opium poppies. The money — he puts it at more than $5 million; officials in the central government say it is closer to $3 million — is earmarked for a range of projects including rural development programs to promote farming alternatives to poppies and cannabis.

    Mr. Atta cautioned that unless the money arrived promptly, he could not guarantee that the farmers would eschew poppies.

    “It’s the responsibility of the central government and international community to improve the lives of farmers, which they aren’t doing,” he said. “Well, we’ll try our best to not let them grow poppy, but it’s going to cause problems.”

    Many farmers around the town of Balkh suggested that forswearing cannabis might be harder than poppies. Not only are cannabis and hashish a more integral part of their customs, they said, but beyond cannabis there are no profitable alternatives.

    The farmers said they would not grow cannabis only if the government provided an alternative source of livelihood, or improved the market for their legal crops.

    “If, in the future, the government helps the farmers — and really helps — we will destroy all the poppy and cannabis,” said Hoshdel, 40, a well-weathered farmer in Khwaja Gholak who has nine children. “If they don’t help us, I swear I’ll grow it.”