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Afghanistan: UN Report Says Opium Output Rising

The UN says opium output in Afghanistan this year accelerated despite efforts to limit production. The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime said in a report today that total opium production this year is expected to reach around 3,400 tons, after falling to nearly zero during the last year of Taliban rule.

Prague, 25 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations says Afghan poppy production accelerated this year despite authorities' efforts to eradicate the crop.

The UN's Office for Drugs and Crime, the ODC, says in an annual report issued today that opium output in Afghanistan is expected to reach around 3,400 tons this year. The amount is a near twentyfold increase on the previous year, when a ban on poppy production imposed by the Taliban was in force.

Afghan poppies serve as the raw material for around 80 percent of the heroin and other opium derivatives sold illegally in Europe. Afghanistan's record harvest came in 1999, when about 4,600 tons of opium was produced.

The ODC was not immediately available to comment on the report or the reasons for the increase.

Professor Cindy Fazey, an expert on international drug policy, blames the rise on the breakdown of civil authority following the collapse of the Taliban last year. She said it allowed farmers once again to plant the lucrative poppy crop. She told RFE/RL: "Once the Taliban had gone, then there was no national way of enforcing the ban. [The] country just broke up into what it was before, a series of fiefdoms controlled by warlords, and it was according to whether the warlords wanted to grow opium or not."

Fazey said that almost a year after the end of the war, the country remains fragmented and the central authority is weak. She said that under these conditions, it will be very difficult for national and international authorities to reduce the poppy crop.

The ODC report says opium production is concentrated in five of the country's 32 provinces: Helmand, Kandahar, Badakhshan, Nangarhar, and Uruzgan.

While the report is hazy on the reasons for the increase in output, it is quick to absolve Afghan President Hamid Karzai's interim authority of responsibility.

ODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa is quoted in a UN statement as saying the planting of this year's poppy crop took place last autumn, long before Karzai's government was in place. "The high level of opium cultivation in Afghanistan this year is not a manifestation of the failure of the Afghan authorities or of international efforts to assist them in drug control," Costa said.

The report also noted what it calls encouraging developments. The first is a commitment by Karzai's government to fight the opium trade, including a presidential decree issued in January banning cultivation, production, sale, and abuse of opiates.

The Afghan government has also set up a special agency, the Counternarcotics Department, within the National Security Council, to oversee the antidrug effort.

For its part, the ODC maintains an office in Kabul and together with the National Security Council administers a program to pay local farmers not to grow poppies. That program has convinced some farmers to switch to other crops, but farmers complain about not receiving the money they are due and that the amounts paid are far less than what they could earn from growing opium.

Fazey pointed out that any effort to get farmers to switch to other crops will be expensive and will take many years. She said substitute crops like wheat will need roads and other infrastructure developments to allow the farmers to get them to market. "[Real efforts to end poppy cultivation] would be very expensive because it's really related to development. Because you have to provide a crop that they can live on, a crop that you can get to market, so sometimes, particularly when opium is growing in remote areas, you have to provide the infrastructure, the roads, for them to get the crop to market," Fazey said.

Any increase in poppy output is likely to be viewed as bad news for Afghanistan's neighbors, especially important opium transit countries like Iran, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Local officials have long complained of the dangers and difficulties of policing their country's border with Afghanistan to stop the flow of opium. They also cite growing rates of drug consumption within their own countries, as these are transformed from purely transit countries to end markets.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.