VIENNA/VIENTIANE, 26 June 2006 (UNODC) - Laos remains on course to achieve its target of becoming opium-free despite an increase in the area under opium cultivation in 2006 from the exceptionally low levels of 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Monday.
The area under opium cultivation was estimated at 2,500 hectares in 2006 compared with 1,800 hectares in 2005, but was down 91 percent from the figure of 26,800 hectares in 1998. Vigorous eradication efforts by the government reduced the area in which opium was actually harvested to less than 1,000 hectares.
"This is a remarkable achievement by the government and people of Laos, which was once the third largest illicit producer of opium in the world," UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said in a statement.
"The Lao Government is to be commended for its firm commitment to eliminating illicit opium cultivation. This has had a welcome knock-on effect in the cross-border battle against drugs in the region."
Mr Costa renewed his call to the international community to help ensure that poor farmers who were previously dependent on income from opium were given sustainable alternative livelihoods.
"The situation remains fragile, especially in the more vulnerable remote northern locations," he said. "Up to 50% of former opium-producing communities lack alternative livelihoods and some have returned to growing opium poppy again. We need to ensure that this victory against drugs proves to be lasting."
The 2006 opium poppy survey was conducted jointly by the Lao Government and UNODC by helicopter across sample sites in seven provinces of northern Laos.
Opium prices remained high at an estimated US$ 550 per kg, an increase of around five percent compared to a year earlier.
"The strong opium prices make it more attractive for farmers to revert to opium production, especially if no alternative sources of income are available," the UNODC chief said. "It is therefore of paramount importance to provide relief and development assistance to the most affected population."
Laos once had one of the highest opiate abuse rates in the world but its community-based treatment and rehabilitation programmes have helped to reduce the number of addicts by 80% in the last seven years to around 12,000.
But the country faces a growing problem of trafficking and abuse of amphetamine-type stimulants.
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