VIENNA, 2 February 2009 (UNODC). The Opium Winter Assessment released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows a likely reduction in the amount of opium grown in Afghanistan in 2009. The 18 provinces that were opium-free in 2008 are projected to remain so in 2009, and 7 others are likely to reduce cultivation - even in the biggest opium producing province of Hilmand. This will deepen the trend of the past few years that showed opium cultivation overwhelmingly concentrated in the 7 most unstable provinces in the south and south-west.
But these gains are fragile. "This has been a hard winter for the people of Afghanistan", said the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa. "Last year's drought and a food crisis have added increased hardship to regions grappling with poverty and plagued by insecurity. For many Afghans, at the moment the most important security issue is food security", said the head of UNODC. He therefore called for long-term structural changes: "to eradicate poverty, not just poppies; to root out corruption, not just illicit crops; and to strengthen human security".
In the north, centre, and east of Afghanistan, pressure from Government authorities, scarcity of food grains, an effective pre-planting information campaign as well as higher prices for licit crops have contributed to the decline in opium cultivation. "To consolidate these gains - particularly during these times of food shortages and economic hardship - provinces and districts that have rid themselves of opium deserve more support through the Good Performance Initiative", said Mr. Costa.
In the south and south-west, reduced opium cultivation is due to high wheat prices, low opium prices and low availability of water due to severe drought. "The effective implementation of the Provincial Counter-Narcotics Strategy in Hilmand shows what strong leadership can achieve, even against the odds", said Mr. Costa. "Further development assistance and the engagement of all stakeholders can turn drug zones into 'Food Zones', and make southern Afghanistan once again the country's bread-basket instead of the world's biggest source of illicit drugs", said the UN's drug tsar.
Despite the anticipated reduction in the opium crop, prices continue to fall (by around 20%). This can be attributed to the massive glut on the opium market due to major overproduction during the past three years.
Nevertheless, the drugs trade remains a major source of revenue for anti-government forces and organized crime operating in and around Afghanistan. "Drug money is also a lubricant for corruption that contaminates power", said Mr. Costa. "While more attention must be devoted to law enforcement (destroying drug laboratories, markets and convoys, and tightening border controls), the flow of drug money into private hands and public pockets has to be stopped (by fighting corruption, cutting the flow of laundered money and seizing the assets of crime)", said the head of UNODC. "Because of its cross-cutting nature, counter-narcotics should be integrated into the wider process of state-building and economic development", he said.
"Success cannot only be measured by reducing opium hectarage: it depends on improving security, integrity, economic growth, and governance. There is no point in winning a Pyrrhic victory against opium if we lose Afghanistan in the process", said Mr. Costa
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