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Central Asia: Experts Say Region Should Look To 'Golden Triangle' To Combat Drug Smuggling

Experts say alternative crops to opium poppies are one possibility In Asia, there are two major opiate-producing regions. The Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Thailand have long been known as the "Golden Triangle." The other region -- the "Golden Crescent" -- comprises Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The latter has emerged as the world's largest opium producer in recent years. Trafficking from Afghanistan to Europe has turned Central Asia into both a transit route for drugs and a consumer of them. As Central Asian governments seek to combat the problem, experts say they should look to the nations of the Golden Triangle, which have successfully addressed the issue.

Prague, 31 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 4,200 metric tons of opium were produced in Afghanistan in 2004, roughly 87 percent of global production.

Slawomir Redo is an UNODC official and author of the book "Organized Crime and Its Control in Central Asia." Speaking not as a UN official but in his personal capacity, Redo told RFE/RL that Central Asian countries have been badly affected by Afghan drugs.

"Central Asia is becoming one of the major markets through which the illicit drugs go or are being consumed by the local population. So, there is a great threat for the region as such that there will be an erosion of the social fabric and obviously the state apparatus if this [trend] continues," Redo said.

The countries of the so-called Golden Triangle -- Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand -- have a long history of fighting drug smugglers. Experts say the Central Asian governments can learn from their Southeast Asian counterparts.

Niklas Swanstrom, a director of Silk Road Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, is an expert on drugs and regional cooperation. He tells RFE/RL that the first step to combat trafficking is to seal borders, just as the Golden Triangle's neighbor China has done.

"In case of Burma, it's simply because its neighbors are closing the borders. We've seen that drug trafficking in Burma has been decreasing immensely. The Chinese are helping the Burmese to stop drug traffickers, but that is mainly bilateral measures. In Central Asia and Afghanistan, we don't even see much of bilateral tendencies," Swanstrom said.

Swanstrom said even bilateral collaboration is not enough to stop smugglers. He said that, given the transnational character of drug trafficking, no country can stop it without international and regional cooperation. However, Swanstrom said the Central Asian states have demonstrated limited political will to cooperate. He said they partly fear an infringement of sovereignty, but added that in his opinion there are other reasons as well.

"Between Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, which are major transit countries, and also Iran, we've seen on paper there is a lot of collaboration. But in practice, there is very little going on. And this is used by drug traffickers. Some of the transit countries and, of course, parts of the government in Afghanistan are benefiting immensely from the [drug] trade because they are involved in it, they are running it. Some of the states, such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan are benefiting from the drug trade or at least segments of these societies, if not all. [A] large part of the elite is benefiting and [therefore] they have no interest in collaboration," Swanstrom said.

In remarks to RFE/RL, a spokesman for Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency strongly rejected Swanstrom's remarks. Avaz Yuldoshev said Tajikistan is making every possible effort to combat drug trafficking.

According to UNODC, more and more drugs are being seized in Central Asia, with some 8 metric tons seized in 2003 alone. Half of those were confiscated by the Tajik Drug Control Agency on the Tajik-Afghan border. Experts say that's a reflection of where most drugs are going.

According to some data, only 5 percent of drugs smuggled in Central Asia are seized. But Redo said the establishment of the Tajik agency is a good start. "So, this speaks about the need to increase capacity of the governments in other Central Asian countries," he said. "The example of the Tajik Drug Control Agency, which is assisted by member states of the United Nations with funding and operations, is now followed by Kyrgyzstan. It is a good example and the way to go."

Redo said another way of tackling opium production is through the development of alternative crops, which can create sustainable livelihoods. That method has proved effective in the Golden Triangle. He cited a UN-supported program by the Thai king and queen in the 1970s. It encouraged farmers to grow coffee rather than drugs.

"[The] case of Thailand is probably the best case with the queen mother's project that was also assisted by the UNODC. [It proves that] alternative development works. It means that in other countries like Central Asia this is possible. But [the Central Asian] countries and our programs are not that far. At this moment, we are talking about law-enforcement activities and strengthening the borders of the Central Asian republics," Redo said.

Under the Taliban, Afghan opium production was slashed by up to 85 percent. But since the fall of the Islamic hard-liners in 2001, poppy cultivation has soared to levels that now make Afghanistan the world's leading opium producer. Poverty and lack of alternatives are the main reasons Afghans grow poppies, which is one of the most profitable businesses in the region.

But a new program begun in December seeks to help Afghan farmers find a new crop. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Germany have pledged contracts worth 3.3 million euros ($4.3 million) to refurbish Afghan sugar refineries.

Swanstrom said this is a rare example of concrete assistance from the West. "One thing I've been criticizing the West for is a lack of will not only from Central Asians and Afghanis but also lack of the will from the West," he said. "We give aid to those regions without any focus on actually combating drugs. What we should do is to help states like Uzbekistan to combat drugs because the consequences of drugs -- like HIV addiction, etc. -- are going to hurt every individual. That, in turn, is going to cost even more resources."

One in 10 Afghans is believed to be directly involved in drug production. Proceeds are estimated at $2.8 billion, or 60 percent of the country's yearly economic output.