And Costa said poppy production in southern Afghanistan is "out of control," and this huge increase is likely to offset the success fighting poppy cultivation in the north and central parts of the country.
Costa says the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan's southern provinces is playing an active role in the increase of the poppy growth and opium trade.
But Costa says that recently a new trend began to emerge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan.
"The evidence which we provided to the [UN] Security Council points to a new and potentially promising development in Afghanistan, namely the fact that in the country now we see a divergent trend between the central-northern part of the country, [a decrease] on the one hand, and southern part of the country, [an increase]," he said.
In its 2006 report, the UN determined a total of 166,000 hectares of poppy fields in Afghanistan. Costa said that in 2006 six Afghan provinces were declared "opium free." And he expects by June that several more of Afghanistan's 35 provinces will also be declared "opium free."
Costa says, however, that there are differences in the estimates by his office -- which is more cautious -- and the estimates of the Afghan government.
"In the center-northern part of the country we may be able to certify opium-free status for [between eight and 12] provinces of Afghanistan," he said. "The [Afghan] government is actually more optimistic than that. They believe there will be a higher number of opium-free provinces."
Despite the upbeat statistics, Costa admitted, the poppy-growing potential of the five southern provinces is so high that it will likely neutralize the gains made against poppy cultivation in the north and central parts of the country.
"Those five provinces are the largest area of concentration of any narcotics in the world at the moment," he said. "There are about 100,000 hectares [of poppy fields in] all of the five collectively. We expect a further increase in these provinces. A further increase in these high-cultivation provinces will probably -- that's the bad news, if you wish -- offset the decrease in the north."
The Afghan government is increasing its poppy-eradication efforts, Costa says. For example, so far this year some 8,000 hectares of poppy fields have been eradicated. This is double the figure for the first quarter of 2006.
Because almost all of Afghanistan's raw opium is being exported to Western Europe and further to North America, Costa says, this is additionally complicating Kabul's relations with its neighbors.
"We also see the importance of strengthening relations with neighboring countries," he said. "All of the Afghan opium, obviously, is exported. Most of it is exported through either Iran or Pakistan. About 20 percent [is exported] through the northern states of Central Asia -- Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and so forth."
Costa says the UN is now undertaking a major border-strengthening initiative along the Pakistani and Iranian borders.
"We have launched a very major initiative to strengthen border control between Afghanistan and Iran, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and obviously between Pakistan and Iran, which is the new 'Golden Triangle' area, if you wish," he said.
The UN Security Council agreed in December to add to the list of known terrorist figures and organizations in Afghanistan the names of major drug traffickers. Under the directive of the council, any such person on the list should be arrested if he/she is detected in any of the UN's 192 member states.
OPIUM FARMING ON THE RISE Despite a nationwide program by the Afghan government to eradicate opium-poppy fields and offer farmers alternative crops, international experts say that the 2006 opium crop will be as much as 40 percent larger than the previous year's. Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium in the world, and the source of as much as 90 percent of Europe's heroin.(more)