26 August 2008, KABUL (UNODC) - At a press conference in Kabul today, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued its summary of the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008. The Report shows a 19% decrease in opium cultivation to 157,000 hectares, down from a record harvest of 193,000 in 2007. Because of a higher yield of 48.8 kg/ha (up from 42.5 kg in 2007), opium production has dropped less dramatically, down 6% from 8,200 to 7,700.
Since last year, the number of opium-free provinces has increased by almost 50%: from 13 to 18. This means that opium is not grown in more than half of the country's 34 provinces. "Last year the world got hit by a heroin tsunami, almost 700 tonnes. This year the opium flood waters have started to recede", said the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa.
The decrease is not due to eradication. In 2008, a paltry 5,480 hectares were eradicated (at a very high human cost), four times less than the 19,047 hectares destroyed in 2007.
Opium cultivation now takes place almost exclusively in provinces most affected by insurgency: 98% of all of Afghanistan's opium is grown in just seven provinces in the south-west (Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah, Nimroz, and to a lesser extent Daykundi and Zabul), where there are permanent Taliban settlements, and where organized crime groups profit from the chaos. Hilmand alone accounted for 103,000 ha of opium cultivation: two thirds of the national total. "If Hilmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs", said the head of UNODC.
"There is now a perfect overlap between zones of high risk and regions of high opium cultivation", said Mr. Costa. "Since drugs are funding insurgency, and insurgency enables drug cultivation, insurgency and narcotics must be fought together", said the UN drug csar.
UNODC attributes the decrease in opium cultivation to good local leadership assisted by bad weather. Strong leadership by some governors, for example in Badakshan, Balkh and Nangarhar, discouraged farmers from planting opium through campaigns against its cultivation, peer pressure, and the promotion of alternative development. The most impressive result comes from Nangarhar. Whereas in 2007 Nangarhar was Afghanistan's second highest opium producing province, this year - for the first time in its modern history - it is opium free.
Mr. Costa called on the international community to reward the opium-free provinces: "governors need to be able to deliver on their promises. Aid should be disbursed more quickly, without the transaction costs of national and international bureaucracy", he said.
Drought contributed to crop failure, particularly in the north and north-west where most of the opium cultivation is rain-fed. The same drastic weather conditions also hurt other crops, like wheat, increasing significantly its domestic price. On the one hand, this, combined with the global impact of rising food prices, is creating a food crisis in Afghanistan. On the other, it has made wheat an attractive, licit alternative to opium. The gross income ratio of opium to wheat (per hectare) in 2007 was 10:1. This year it narrowed to 3:1.
However, with world attention focused on Afghan opium, benign neglect has turned Afghan cannabis into a low risk/high value cash crop. "The international community should help Afghanistan tackle its massive cannabis problem", said the head of UNODC.
"Afghanistan's drug control strategy should be to consolidate and reduce", said the head of UNODC. "Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the latest food crisis has made farmers even more vulnerable. Opium is a seasonal plant. It may be gone today, but back again tomorrow", he warned.
To consolidate recent gains, Mr. Costa urged elders, shura, religious leaders, district officials and provincial governors to show farmers a viable alternative to opium. "This must be done now while farmers are deciding whether or not to plant opium for the 2008/09 harvest: timely and targeted international assistance is vital", said Mr. Costa.
To reduce opium even further, Mr. Costa urged the Afghan authorities and the international community to focus on Nimroz, Daykundi and Zabul: provinces where opium productivity and cultivation are lower than in the south, and insurgency is less of a threat than in Hilmand, Kandahar or Uruzgan. "These provinces, particularly Daykundi and Zabul, are ripe for the same kind of success that we witnessed in Badakshan and Nangarhar this year: let's make them opium-free in 2009", he said.
He urged the Afghan authorities, assisted by NATO, to shift focus and resources from eradication to closing opium markets, destroying heroin labs, and going after the drug convoys. "These are higher value targets than farmers' fields. If heroin processing and trafficking are blocked, the domestic price of opium would drop even further", said Mr. Costa.
He also urged intelligence agencies to look for thousands of tonnes of unsold opium. For the third year in a row, opium supply far outweighs world demand. Prices are falling, but not dramatically. "Such an inelastic response suggests that vast amounts of opium, heroin and morphine (thousand of tonnes) have been withheld from the market", said the head of UNODC. "Where is this opium, who is stockpiling it, and why? This is a ticking time bomb for public health and global security".
He also called for a crackdown on corruption, which is "greasing the wheels" of the drugs trade. "Corrupt officials, landowners, warlords and criminals must feel the full force of the law, otherwise the opium economy will continue to operate with impunity, and the Taliban will continue to profit from it", he warned. "This is also the world's responsibility", said the head of UNODC, referring to UN Security Council Resolutions 1735 and 1822 that urge countries to bring to justice the most wanted drug traffickers who are bankrolling terrorism and insurgency with drug money. "I am disappointed that so far neither Afghanistan nor any other UN Member States have come forward with any names", said Mr. Costa.
Mr. Costa called on Member States to step up efforts to stop the diversion and smuggling of precursor chemicals used in Afghanistan to process heroin. Increased intelligence sharing and joint operations in 2008 have resulted in major seizures of acetic anhydride in Afghanistan, neighbouring countries, and en route to the region. "Preventing these chemicals from reaching Afghanistan will make heroin production a much riskier and costlier business", said Mr. Costa.
In Kabul, Mr. Costa congratulated President Karzai on recent positive developments in drug control. He urged the central government to stay the course during the election period, and provide the leadership, security, justice and integrity needed to make further progress against the poppy problem. "Drugs and terrorists should not determine the fate of Afghanistan", said Mr. Costa.
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