KABUL, 27 August (UNODC) - Opium production in Afghanistan soared to frightening record levels in 2007, concentrated mainly in the troubled south of the country, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Monday.
However, the number of opium-free provinces in the centre and north of Afghanistan more than doubled compared to 2006.
UNODC's 2007 Annual Opium Survey showed the area under opium cultivation rose to 193,000 hectares from 165,000 in 2006. The total opium harvest will be 8,200 tonnes, up from 6,100 tonnes last year. The amount of Afghan land used for growing opium is now larger than the combined total under coca cultivation in Latin America - Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. No other country has produced narcotics on such a deadly scale since China in the 19 th century.
Behind the headline numbers, the markedly divergent trends between the north and south of the country have intensified.
"The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless," said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa.
In the centre and north of Afghanistan, where the government has increased its authority and presence, opium cultivation is diminishing. The number of opium-free provinces more than doubled from six to thirteen, while in the province of Balkh opium cultivation collapsed from 7,200 hectares last year to zero.
However, the opposite trend was seen in southern Afghanistan. Some 80 percent of opium poppies were grown in a handful of provinces along the border with Pakistan, where instability is greatest. In the volatile province of Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is concentrated, opium cultivation rose 48 percent to 102,770 hectares.
With a population of just 2.5 million, Helmand has single-handedly become the world's biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries - like Colombia (coca), Morocco (cannabis), and Myanmar (opium) - which have populations up to twenty times larger.
Mr Costa said poverty could not be used as an excuse for growing poppy: some of the most fertile regions of the country in the south have become the opium-producing heartland while poorer provinces in the centre and north of the country - where per capita income is half that of the south - are opium-free.
Rather, poppy growing is closely linked to insecurity. "Opium cultivation is inversely related to the degree of government control," said Mr Costa. "Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish."
He noted that the Taliban has reversed its religious edict of July 2000, which banned poppy cultivation, and is now profiting from the drugs trade. "What used to be considered a sin is now being encouraged," he said. Nevertheless, UNODC village surveys indicate that the main reason farmers choose not to grow poppy is that they consider it against Islam.
The UN's drug chief called for a more determined effort by the Afghan government and the international community to combat the twin threats of drugs and insurgency by building upon the promising developments in the north and reacting to the dismal failures in the south.
"It would be an historic error to let Afghanistan collapse under the blows of drugs and insurgency. Only 14 percent of the population is involved in opium cultivation. The vast majority of Afghans want to turn their country away from drugs and crime. They deserve our support," he said.
He called for higher rewards for non-opium farmers to demonstrate that there are viable alternatives to illicit crops. "Assistance is plentiful but not being disbursed fast enough. I see a risk of some provinces sliding back to poppy cultivation," said Mr Costa.
He also underlined the need for greater deterrents to dissuade farmers from planting opium, and an end to collusion that enables rich landlords from evading eradication. A no-opium pledge should be embedded in all development aid programmes..
Mr Costa urged the government to get tough on corruption - the lubricant that oils the wheels of the drugs trade. "Short-term greed is undermining the long-term needs of Afghanistan," he warned.
Building on experience in the north and centre of the country where farmers have turned their backs on poppy, UNODC sees making half of the country's 34 provinces opium-free in 2008 as a plausible target.
Mr Costa called on NATO to more actively support counter-narcotics operations. "Since drugs are funding insurgency, Afghanistan's military and its allies have a vested interest in destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets and bringing traffickers to justice. Tacit acceptance of opium trafficking is undermining stabilization efforts," he said.
UN Member States were encouraged to take full advantage of Security Council resolution 1735 by adding the names of a dozen drug traffickers to the United Nations Al Qaida/Taliban list in order to seize their assets, ban their travel and facilitate their extradition. "This should shrink the room for manoeuvre of criminals who are currently operating with impunity, fuelling instability, and reaping profits from dealing in the world's deadliest drug," said the UNODC Director.
UNODC also appealed to heroin consuming states to do more to prevent and treat addiction to a drug that kills over 100,000 people a year.
Full text of the 2007 Annual Opium Poppy Survey executive summary available here.
Audio interviews in English and French about the report available here