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UN: Drought Hits Afghan Opium, But Concern Remains Over Trafficking

The UN drug control agency says in a new report that opium production in Afghanistan declined by more than 25 percent in the past year, mainly due to a severe drought. But the report also says Afghanistan remains the world's leading opium producer, and a new regional action plan has been approved by the country's neighbors to try to curb trafficking. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 15 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A severe drought has done what international pressure could not do -- cut back sharply on the production of opium in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The UN's Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention released its annual poppy survey on Thursday showing that 3,200 metric tons of fresh opium was produced in Afghanistan in the past year. That's a decrease of about 1,300 metric tons from last year's survey figures.

The drug control agency says the country's worst drought in 30 years was the main reason. A survey of thousands of villages found widespread awareness of a decree by the Taliban requiring all poppy farmers to reduce their cultivation area by one-third. But the agency said most areas did not comply with the decree.

The agency's executive director, Pino Arlacchi , told reporters at the UN yesterday that despite the drought, Afghanistan's poppy production -- from which heroin is derived -- is still alarmingly high.

"Afghanistan remains by far the largest opium poppy supplier in the world. Even the internal distribution of area production did not change in the provinces of Helmand and Nangarhar, with over 62,000 hectares under poppy cultivation."

The level of Afghanistan's opium production has raised widespread international concern, but is especially grave for its neighbors in Central and South Asia. Arlacchi said about half of the opium produced in Afghanistan is used locally and the other half is trafficked to Europe. That has created, he says, an estimated 3 million addicts in Pakistan and 1 million in Iran. And it has escalated tensions in the prime trade route through Central Asia to Turkey and the Balkans.

Arlacchi met this week with representatives from the region -- known as the "Six-plus-Two" group -- to work out a strategy for containing the flow of illegal drugs from Afghanistan. Most of them approved a regional plan, directed by the UN drug control agency, to tighten the security belt around Afghanistan.

The countries involved in the new initiative include Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Russia, and the United States. Turkmenistan took part in the talks in New York this week, Arlacchi said, but decided not to participate in the regional plan. Pakistan has been a strong supporter of the Taliban regime in its civil war against an alliance of forces in the north. Most of the other countries in the group oppose the Taliban but Arlacchi said that did not complicate the drug-fighting effort.

"This is an area where an extremely strong and large consensus emerged and I hope I can bring the results of the Six-plus-Two meeting to the attention of Security Council very soon."

The regional drug plan, says Arlacchi, is based on an initiative his agency started in Tajikistan. A $4-million program undertaken there in the past year has involved the training of drug-control agents by Western experts and equipping border guards with better communication devices.

The regional plan also involves developing better coordination among Afghanistan's neighbors, training and equipping each nation's drug control staff, and improving the control of chemicals used to produce heroin from opium. But the best results, Arlacchi says, will come when opium poppies are replaced as cash crops for Afghans.

"We know very well this is a kind of emergency strategy. The long-term solution is alternative development and the elimination of the narcotic crop inside of Afghanistan."

The UN agency was able to conduct a small-scale alternative crop program in three districts in Afghanistan's Kandahar province in the past year. It reported a 50 percent decrease in the opium harvest where alternative crops were substituted.