LONDON, 27 November 2008. The Afghan Opium Survey 2008 released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that opium has become less important to the Afghan economy due to a decrease in cultivation, production and prices. However, opium finances the Taliban war economy and is a major source of revenue for criminal groups and terrorists.
Opium cultivation in 2008 declined 19% to 157,000 hectares. Production was down by 6% to 7,700 tons. The Survey shows that prices are also down by around 20%. As a result, the value of opium to farmers dropped by more than a quarter between 2007 and 2008, from $1 billion to $730 million. The export value of opium, morphine and heroin (at border prices in neighbouring countries) for Afghan traffickers is also down, from $4 billion in 2007 to $3.4 billion this year.
The area of arable land in Afghanistan used to grow opium dropped from 2.5% to 2.1% between 2007 and 2008, and one million fewer people were involved in opium cultivation this year. The Afghan opium problem is therefore shrinking in size and becoming more concentrated in the south-west of the country where 98% of the opium is grown.
Despite the drop in opium cultivation, production and prices, the Taliban and other anti-government forces are making massive amounts of money from the drug business. In Afghanistan, authorities impose a charge (called ushr) on economic activity, traditionally set at 10% of income. Opium farming may have generated $50-$70 million of such income in 2008. Furthermore, levies imposed on opium processing and trafficking may have raised an additional $200-$400 million. "With so much drug-related revenue, it is not surprising that the insurgents' war machine has proven so resilient, despite the heavy pounding by Afghan and allied forces", said the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa.
He also pointed to the danger of opium stocks held by the Taliban. "For a number of years, Afghan opium production has exceeded world demand. The bottom should have fallen out of the opium market, but it hasn't. So where is the missing opium?" said Mr. Costa. "Lack of price response in the opium market can only be the result of stock build-ups, and all evidence points to the Taliban".
The UN's top drug control official suggested that ongoing efforts by the Taliban to manipulate the opium market may result in less opium in 2009. "Since they are hoarding opium, they have the most to gain from lower cultivation. This would drive up prices, and result in a re-evaluation of their stocks", said Mr. Costa. News picked up by UNODC surveyors in a number of eastern and southern provinces confirms that the Taliban are taking a passive stance during opium planting this autumn, as opposed to past efforts to promote it.
Furthermore, alternative sources of income are becoming more attractive to farmers. The revenue from wheat has tripled since 2007. The gross income ratio of opium to wheat (per hectare) in 2007 was 10:1. This year it narrowed to 3:1. The net income ratio is down to 2:1. However, this is partly due to drought and may therefore be reversed. Mr. Costa therefore called for "greater and faster international development assistance - including food aid to urban centres - to prevent a humanitarian disaster and to consolidate gains that have resulted in 18 out of Afghanistan's 34 provinces becoming opium free".
Mr. Costa insisted on the importance of "keeping down both opium production and prices". "If the Taliban can disrupt the market, so can NATO: drug production and trafficking would be slowed by destroying high value targets like drug markets, labs and convoys - which the Afghan army, backed by NATO, are starting to do. International efforts have also been stepped up to reduce the inflow of precursor chemicals needed to produce heroin", he said. "These measures are meant to hit organized crime and insurgency in order to cut the Afghan drug economy's umbilical cord to the world, breaking the link between opium farmers in Afghanistan and heroin addicts in Europe", said Mr. Costa.
"The downward trend in Afghanistan's opium economy would gain speed with more honest government, more security, and more development assistance", said Mr. Costa.
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Mr. Walter Kemp
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United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
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