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UN: Study Stresses Alternative Crops To Dismantle Booming Opium Economy

A new report by the United Nations drug-control agency calls on the international community to help Afghanistan attack its flourishing opium economy at its roots. It urges steps such as a reinvigorated policy of crop replacement, new jobs for rural workers, and the transformation of opium bazaars into legal commodity markets. UN officials say that unless the drug economy is dismantled, there will be no sustainable development for Afghanistan and continued problems for its neighbors.

United Nations, 4 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts advance shakily, its opium economy remains robust, in defiance of a year-old government ban and the anti-trafficking efforts of neighbors.

A 220-page report released yesterday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime calls for a concerted effort by the international community to combat the roots of the problem. It says a poor rural population has become chained to this illicit economy -- which thrived in 20 years of civil war -- by a network of domestic warlords and international crime groups. They operate primarily in about five provinces in the south, north, and east of the country.

The director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, told a news conference that the labor-intensive cultivation of opium poppies often relies on women and children. One way to disrupt the trade, he said, is to engage those laborers in other duties. "If you want to break the neck, if you want to break into the opium economy, you have to offer alternative economic means, including those who are absorbed, women and children, keeping the women in other activities and children in school," Costa said.

The UN agency's report also calls for the aid groups and nongovernmental organizations active in the country to expand the micro-lending facilities available to opium growers.

Micro-credit programs, which have a high level of success in the developing world, offer loans at favorable rates. By contrast, UN officials say, opium farmers are known to pay excessively high rates for cash they borrow from opium traders.

The report also stresses the need to reopen bazaars in the main opium-growing areas to revive trade with legal commodities.

At stake is not only Afghanistan's development but the stability of surrounding states, UN officials say.

Afghan poppies serve as the raw material for about 80 percent of the heroin and other opium derivatives sold illegally in Europe. But the UN report also details the corrosive effect Afghanistan's drug trade has had on neighboring states in the past decade.

Data from the region show there are close to 1 million chronic opiate abusers in Iran, 700,000 in Pakistan, and more than 300,000 in Central Asia. Shown as a percentage of the population over age 15, this amounts to nearly 1 percent of the population in Pakistan and Central Asia and 2.8 percent of the population in Iran. That's a far higher percentage of abusers than in Western Europe.

The impact has been especially dramatic in Central Asia, Costa says, because states in the region had a low level of drug abuse in Soviet times. "Since their frontiers opened and opium started being trafficked through the countries concerned -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and so forth -- obviously with traffickers paying the services of local communities in kind, that has generated a hyperbolic [sic] growth of drug addiction," Costa said.

The rising addiction rate has also created a surge in the number of Central Asians infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The vast majority of those infected are intravenous drug users. The number of AIDS cases is still comparatively small, but health experts are alarmed at the rate of new infections and the potential burden on already weak economies.

But for those connected with the opium trade, the profits are immense. The UN report says opiate trafficking profits in the countries neighboring Afghanistan amounted to about $4 billion last year, equal to 2 percent of gross domestic product. In Afghanistan itself, the opium trade generated $1.2 billion last year, nearly one-fifth of the Afghan economy.

The UN's top representative in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the UN Security Council 31 January that the drug trade remains a critical concern. "In the past in Afghanistan, these profits have been used to nurture a war economy. It is crucial during this transitional period that such an economy not be allowed to regain its former proportions," Brahimi said.

The president of Afghanistan's transitional administration, Hamid Karzai, last year launched a poppy-eradication program together with the governors of the five main drug-producing provinces. Costa said his agency's latest figures show that almost 10 percent of the areas under opium cultivation have been eradicated as a result of the most recent efforts. UN officials point to Thailand, Pakistan, and Turkey as examples of states that were able to replace opium crops with commercially viable legal crops.

But the UN drug agency's report calls the opium economy of Afghanistan an "intensely complex" phenomenon that will require domestic, regional, and international actors to synchronize efforts to eradicate the problem.