Prague, 29 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Opium production has boomed in Afghanistan since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. Afghanistan has become the world's top opium and heroin producer as a result, sparking warnings by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department that it is on the brink of becoming a "narco-state."
Afghan poppy cultivation rose to record levels in 2004 following a two-thirds increase compared to the previous year.
But the latest UN survey suggests that in most Afghan provinces -- including notorious poppy centers such as Nangarhar, Helmand, and Oruzgan provinces -- many farmers have switched to legal crops like wheat.
Doris Budenberg, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that the trend shows many farmers are taking the government's antidrug commitment and policies seriously.
"The test case will be next year and particularly the years after [as to] whether this reduction in cultivation is sustainable." -- Doris Budenberg, UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan
"It is a respect for the government's ban on opium poppy cultivation -- but also fear of eradication," she said. "The government is very committed to drug control and has announced strict eradication measures. And the farmers are aware of that, and there's also a fear of potential loss of the harvest."
She added that low yields of opium poppies, rising wheat prices, and the end of the drought in Afghanistan also influenced farmers' decisions to cut back on poppy growing.
Afghan officials say the drug problem in Afghanistan is a serious threat to the country's national security.
Shortly after his inauguration in December, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Afghans to fight opium production with the same commitment as they would a "jihad," or a holy war. Last week, Afghan Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi announced the creation of a special court to try traffickers involved in the country's narcotics industry.
The UN survey was carried out in February among more than 200 villages that represent more than half of Afghanistan's districts. Work for the detailed annual UNODC opium survey for 2005 will start in April. The current survey gives trends rather than statistics.
Budenberg notes that there are rising poppy figures in five provinces -- including Kandahar in the south and Farah in the west. She suggests that farmers in those areas have not taken eradication warnings seriously.
"It has to be taken into account that these five provinces in 2004 only covered 10 percent of the total area under opium-poppy cultivation," she said. "So their contribution to the overall poppy harvest is rather limited -- about 10 percent. The increase has probably happened because the farmers did not believe that the government ban on poppy cultivation would be definitely enforced."
Yesterday, Karzai said he was encouraged by a fall in opium cultivation. But he added that the country's poppy farmers need more help finding alternative ways to feed their families. Karzai said the positive trend indicates the Afghan people are taking steps to rid their country of the menace of drugs.
The UNODC's Budenberg says international help is needed if the downward trend is to continue.
"The test case will be next year and particularly the years after [as to] whether this reduction in cultivation is sustainable," she said. "Currently, there are a number of factors that play on the decision of the farmers. Whether at one point in time the international community is ready to support the farmers with sufficient funds for alternative development and alternative livelihoods and help them to sustain the reduction in poppy cultivation remains to be seen over the next years. But, of course, to have a reduction in this year is definitely a sign [for] optimism."
Precise figures on Afghan poppy cultivation and production will be included in the UN's Afghan poppy survey for 2005. That report will be released in the fall.